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Vieux Carré

The Wooster Group presents a frequently captivating staging of Tennessee Williams' lesser-known play set in a New Orleans boarding house. logo
Dan Pettrow and Ari Fliakos in Vieux Carré
(© Paula Court)
The pounding disco beat that occasionally courses underneath Elizabeth LeCompte's new staging for the Wooster Group of Tennessee Williams' Vieux Carré, now at the Baryshnikov Arts Center's Jerome Robbins Theatre, may seem to have little place in a play that's set in a 1930s New Orleans boarding house. Similarly, the actors often seem to be parodying Williams' pungent lyricism with line readings that come straight out of Southern Gothic movies like the 1964 cult classic, Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte.

But both the music and the approach to the text, as well as the company's use of multimedia and other anachronisms, serve a larger purpose in this frequently captivating, but ultimately overlong, staging of Williams' gently melodramatic memory play. They illuminate the lengthy gestation of the piece, which the playwright began in the late 1930s but only completed in the 1970s.

At the center of the play is a character known at The Writer (Ari Fliakos), who has migrated from his native St. Louis in search of inspiration. In the boardinghouse, run by an insane and grotesque old woman, Mrs. Wire (Kate Valk in a superlatively creepy turn), The Writer lives side by side with a group of other ghoulish characters, including Nightingale (imbued with both desperation and an aggressive predatory nature by Scott Shepherd), a dissipated gay painter dying of tuberculosis; Jane Sparks (made truly pitiable by Valk), a New Yorker and would-be fashion designer with her own health issues, and Jane's abusive, drug-addicted boyfriend Tye (also Shepherd in a delicious smug turn).

The play, a jagged series of interrelated encounters, charts The Writer's coming-of-age as he navigates not only relationships with these individuals, but also himself and his sexuality. His internal battles are often made concrete with blurry porn films that run on one of the flat-screen televisions mounted at the rear of the stage where two rolling platforms filled with the household's debris create a cunningly disorienting and discomfiting vision of the milieu in which he is living.

His obsession with sex -- as well as the other characters' own preoccupation with it -- manifests itself in other ways. Shepherd sports a plastic phallus that juts out from underneath his kimono (visual references to Chinese opera enhance a story that Tye relates); when the actor plays Tye, he rearranges the genital prosthetic so that it plainly protrudes from his white briefs. Video designer Andrew Schneider also underscores how ever-present sex is displaying the classically chiseled men that course through The Writer's mind and the nudes which Nightingale draws of his housemate.

Just as these visuals evoke the sexual liberation that surrounded Williams in his late life, Jane's off-the-shoulder top and tight skirt bring to mind films from the early 1960s, which seemed to be humorously invoking Williams' and other writer's depictions of the South. Elsewhere, the house's black maid Nursie (Kaneza Schaal) is a cross between a Valley girl and crude stereotypical Topsy -- an intriguing blend of 1980s aural cues and 1930s visual ones.

Each of these choices -- as well as the increasing use of projected text as The Writer bangs away on his typewriter, giving the sense that he is composing the scenes as they unfold -- can't fail to provoke or intrigue theatergoers' imaginations. Yet, after one has come to appreciate LeCompte's multi-tiered approach, the show plateaus dramatically, undermining much of what had been so previously riveting.

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