The Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company presented their 2nd Annual Tennessee Williams Festival
with a wine reception, a reading of the Williams’ one act play, Kingdom of Earth, introduced by Playhouse Creatures Artistic Director Joseph W. Rodriguez, followed by a panel discussion featuring accomplished directors known for successful interpretations of the dramatist’s work.
The panel was moderated by Williams scholar Thomas Keith, Consulting Editor at New Directions, Williams’ original and only publisher. He had asked each of the guests to focus their comments on one specific project, in relation to the topic of directing Williams’ later, lesser-known works and, in one case, bringing a fresh approach to an early iconic play.
Drama and comedy written for the theater is as old as civilization itself, and at its heart has always been language that reveals fundamental aspects of what it means to be human and what it means to be inhuman. The greatest playwrights are poets whose words can reach across years and even centuries to present an artistic mirror that compels us humans to laugh (or weep) at ourselves, reaffirm our values, or reexamine the validity of our most cherished beliefs in what we hold to be sacred or profane. And Tennessee Williams is arguably the greatest playwright that America may ever produce. From the shortest stories to the grandest pageants, his wit and wisdom wove poetic tapestries featuring memorable characters and speaking directly to issues of class, race, sexuality, and social justice in ways that were daring for his time, but which remain just as relevant today. It is the universal aspect of his themes, usually presented in the specific environs of the American South during the middle of the twentieth century, that provide audiences so much treasure, as well as his ability to provide actors with language that appears to be rendered in our common speech, but is in fact poetry and how we only wish we spoke to one another.
Moderator Keith had asked for comments relating to issues faced when staging later Williams offerings or those known to have been “difficult.” But down the line, the panel stressed that there was nothing wrong with Williams’ later plays. Rather, they agreed, any real issues lay with critics and a public that wanted him to keep writing the traditional dramas from the early 50s, when he had evolved toward deeply personal works, expressionistic in style, and intimate in their nuanced structure and language, which could not be adequately expressed in the cavernous Broadway houses where they were first staged, often coming off as melodramas.
Here follows my personal reminiscence of Eli Wallach, who died on Tuesday at the age of 98.
When I met him almost five years ago, Eli Wallach was being held up by two persons who were preparing to usher him toward the exit at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where the elderly actor had read with his daughter from Tennessee Williams’ Mister Paradise as part of the ceremonies inducting the dramatist into the cathedral’s Poet’s Corner.
For many years, the bulletin board over my desk had a brown and faded copy of a New York Times editorial published just after I arrived in New York City from graduate school. Written by Eli Wallach and his wife Anne Jackson, it concerned their crushed dream of opening a rep company at the South Street Seaport that would offer tickets at affordable prices. It stated that the theatrical establishment would not permit this, since Broadway relied on the half-price booth for its true income, and therefore ticket face value had to remain high, so as to help insure profitable productions. The editorial was basically an apology to New York City for the Wallachs being unable to do what they still felt would have been the right thing.
But I had admired Eli Wallach long before I became aware that his heart was in the right place.
As a child, my favorite movie was The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, followed closely by the Magnificent Seven, which I could practically recite from memory, and often did when acting out Wallach’s death scene. It was years later that I recognized the profoundly excellent craft and true artistry that earned him an Honorary Oscar in 2011, and which was demonstrated in films like The Misfits, and Baby Doll.
But he was admired even more for his work on the stage, at least by those fortunate enough to have seen him. I never did so, and wasn’t even born when he originated the role I most wished I could have experienced in person.
And so, that evening in the cathedral, I strode past the likes of Vanessa Redgrave and Marian Seldes, Olympia Dukakas and Gregory Mosher, to interrupt the progress of the little old man being shuffled out of the way. I apologized for my intrusion, and then asked if he would sign the paperback book I had placed before him. I was unaware he would be there, and just happened to have a copy with me. Wallach looked down with a furrowed brow, which then leapt upwards as he read the title, Camino Real.
Produced between The Rose Tattoo and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Camino Real was developed at the Actor’s Studio and featured Wallach in the lead role of Kilroy, the all-American boy who does not survive a visit to a corrupt banana republic right out of the Twilight Zone. A surreal dream pageant where the romantic spirit struggles for survival in the age of cold-hearted capitalism, the play was written and premiered on Broadway in the heart of the conventional, conservative 1950s. And being even more ahead of its time than many Williams’ plays, it promptly flopped.
And yet, the script contains such poetic beauty, and the ideals of compassion, justice and brotherhood espoused by characters no less than Lord Byron and Don Quixote, and the all-American boy, that I once carried it around for scraps of inspiration in the same way the narrator in Zorba the Greek totes his Dante. And it was directing Camino Real that became my Masters thesis in graduate school.
Eli Wallach looked up at me with his lips parted in surprise. He then returned to the book I was holding, putting his hand flat upon it, like a courtroom bible, before looking back at me to say, in that uniquely gathered voice of his, “This is a wonderful play!”
He began to stir, and suddenly aware of his bonds, looked at each of his handlers to repeat the urgent sentiment, “This is a wwwwWONderful play!!”
After scribbling his name on a leaf inside, he handed me the script, looked out at the small crowd gathering around him to proclaim, “I got to be Kilroy!”
“You got to create Kilroy.” I responded out of reflex.
Eli Wallach snapped his head toward me, peered into my eyes with a puzzling look that said, “Who ARE you, and how did you come by all this?” And then a change came over the old actor, as the crow’s feet melted away and he stood more erect with an expression of distinct pride.
A gleam came into his eye, and his lips twitched as his mouth searched for words around a flickering tongue, as if he was savoring the tasty memory of being 38 again and starring in his second major Tennessee Williams play on Broadway.
“Kazan would Wwwwork it up. And then we would shhhow it to Tennessee…” he said like a master storyteller, to the arc of listeners gathered before him. But just then, two more people pushed through the crowd to put a stop it and take him away.
He looked at me with the regret of a child whose play date has been cut short. “I’m sorry. I have to go.” He said to me, as if we were the only two people in the room. And I could tell, he truly wished we could go off together and continue our conversation.
“It’s OK.” I said. “We can talk more about it next time.” And his eyes replied, ‘Really? I hope so!’
I thought about that night, this past Monday, when I was attending a wonderful panel discussion on directing Tennessee Williams, featuring Emily Mann, Austin Pendleton and others, and moderated by Thomas Keith, the Williams scholar and editor, and my friend for nearly 40 decades, who also organized the evening in the cathedral.
I had sort of hoped that Eli Wallach would have been in attendance, among those others in the audience who had known the playwright well. I then got word that he had passed away the very next day.
“I worked with Eli and his wife Anne Jackson when they wrote a forward to the volume Mister Paradise and Other One-Act Plays. I’ve had the chance to meet many artists of stature, but few have had the natural electricity that Eli Wallach did.” That is how Thomas Keith put it, as we emailed each other with the sad news at just about the same time.
Now there will never be a next time for me and Eli. And I shall never walk under the stained glass of St. John the Divine again without saying to myself, “Kilroy Was Here.”
We Already Have Birds That Sing, the new CD from Life in a Blender, is an album of tunes developed through live performance, and perfected in the recording studio, with the addition of extra guitar parts, refined arrangements for the resident strings, and a hard-hitting horn section of guest artists.
But the blood and guts of each cut on this, their 8th album, is the rock n roll core of drums, bass, and electric guitar propelling the singing that is voiced by the guy next door, with an affable lilt that can change to carnival barker or shrieking banshee on a dime.
Life in a Blender arose in the post-punk art rock scene of the mid-1980s. The current lineup has been together over twenty years, with a loyal fan base that continues to grow, thanks to the inventive thinking man’s rock composed by an ensemble of veteran musicians, and the sneakily adroit lyrics of front man Don Rauf, which are like little short stories, filled with quirky characters defined by the imagery of a specific time and place, yet achieving the cathartic impact of broader human experience.
The album opens with a blast of raucous horns, leading into Tongue Cut Sparrow, a boisterous burlesque number, closely based on the published biography of a young Japanese-American singer who was initially forced to work as an exotic dancer at Forbidden City, a popular men’s club in 1950s San Francisco. Shunned by all her family, except a grandmother, she ultimately finds her voice and career as a chanteuse.
In Shards, a man describes his daily life to an old acquaintance, and exhibits a confident outlook even if things could be better, and then suddenly reveals the private, backyard anguish of loss and lamentation. The juxtaposition of human façade and interiors is a theme Don Rauf has explored on previous records, as with the upbeat transient with the broken heart in the song Professional Mover (from The Heart is a Small Balloon, 2007,) along with the eccentric crank of a neighbor who turns out to be a friendly, regular guy once you get to know him, in Hoot Owl (Homewrecker Spoon, 2011.)
But in Shards, the switch between outward appearance and inner reality is more poignant and more surprising, as the brass-driven funk of the first part underscores the growling declaration that, “I’m looking fine. I bump and grind…,”only to have the music and the singer suddenly stripped to the basic beat, as the violin rises up to play on the heart strings while accompanying the strained confession of regret. It is a classic example of just one life in a blender, found in the canon of this long-lived band of the same name.
A less weighty lament is expressed by a lonely guy out on the town, in Mamanama, a romping, stomping two-step, complete with electric fiddle solo. He searches for companionship and good times across the expanse of Los Angeles, appealing to bar flies and surfers alike, with a chorus of “Can’t you see? I’m good company!”
In the song Falmouth, a cheery fella imposes his unquenchable optimism on an emotionally distressed friend going through some unnamed crisis, and not taking no for an answer. A press release reveals information about the character’s specific situation. But Falmouth works so well on its own exactly because of the tight focus details of chicken, flowers, and roller derby, set before the background of ambiguous emotional circumstance. It allows a listener to connect the song’s sentiment with their own life experience, where they or one they care for has made similar efforts to reach someone in a bad place and pull them out.
Often when immersing myself in a new record there is a tune that goes unnoticed, only to put a hook in me later on, so that it becomes a permanent part of the repertoire of fragments sung when cleaning the house or walking down the street. Falmouth is that song on this CD. I think it has something to do with the syncopation in the clean picking pattern from guitarist Al Houghton, in combination with the sporadic vocal harmony lines, and the smart and infectious interludes from the horn section, arranged by bassist Mark Lerner.
Then again, the counterpoint underpinning Good Answer, which Lerner composed for cellist Dave Moody and violinist Rebecca Weiner Tompkins, is just as memorable, and it provides plenty of space for drummer Ken Meyer to fill up with tasty accents. Where that song is a flippant response to the bandwagon catch phrases of American pop culture, Frankenstein Cannot Be Stopped breathes new life into one of the most popular stories of gothic horror. The point of view is that of a member of the cinema audience, who is haunted by the tragic scene where the unintentional monster kills his youngest victim, and so he returns again and again to try to warn her from the dark.
The album closes with Sea in a Sieve, a buoyant appreciation of the joys found in setting sail in a small vessel just for the fun of it. And like the record as a whole, it is a transportive entertainment that is worthwhile and enjoyable, but ends sooner than one might wish, leaving a taste for more.
We Already Have Birds That Sing can be downloaded direct from the band’s website, for the indecently affordable price of $7, or you may order an actual CD for $10, which also includes the digital download.
Here is a video of Shards, shot in concert at Joe’s Pub, at the Public Theater in New York City, and features the fledgling horn arrangements. You can see and hear how the song evolved, by comparing it to the video farther down, which was shot at Rockwood Music Hall several months earlier, when Shards was being performed for the very first time.
You will have to get the album to hear the definitive version.