By ALAN SMASON
If, as the adage says, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then satire must be the epitome of adoration. Two one-act plays by famed playwright Christopher Durang and another by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa have served to turn the tables for longtime fans of Tennessee Williams, accustomed as they are to themes of a darker nature revolving about sexuality, desire, madness and addiction.
Once again, the Tennessee Williams Theatre Company (TWTC) proves no Tennessee Williams character is immune to being satirized. In For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls, Christopher Durang’s clever conceit is brilliantly played out by actors who question the mendacity (or should we say womendacity?) of Williams’ most enduring characters. It is no accident that Desire, Desire, Desire, which parodies Williams’ immortal play A Streetcar Named Desire, leads off the evening; it is currently enjoying its 75th anniversary this year and was celebrated as such at the recent Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival.
Breland Leon plays the role of Blanche DuBois as never before seen, a woman whose hot lust can only be quenched by copious amounts of beer splashed on her larger-than-life personage by none other than Mary Langley in the role of Stanley Kowalski. This Stanley mournfully and loudly bemoans the disappearance of his beloved Stella (Jefther Osario), but where “she” has gone is a bit of a mystery, soon to be revealed. The gender bending continues when Big Daddy portrayed by a mustached Tracey E. Collins arrives and two different portrayals of frustrated Maggie the Cat (Lizzy Bruce and Jefther Osorio) complicate the already hilarious premise.
The role of the Census Taker played by Matthew Raetz parallels that of the young man collecting for the Evening Star in A Streetcar Named Desire, but he is confused by the number of people claiming residence in the apartment and the two Maggies make his effort a study in obfuscation.
In the largest of the one-act plays, For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls, Durang takes on Williams’ memory play The Glass Menagerie. Tracey E. Collins leads the cast of three other players in her role as Amanda Wingvalley. Her dim-witted son Lawrence, a hypochondriac, collects glass cocktail stirrers and picks one up:
“This one is called Stringbean because it’s long and thin,” he tells his mother before picking up another. “And this one is called Stringbean because it’s long and thin.”
After picking up a third stirrer, he exclaims: “And this one is called Blue because it’s…blue.”
“All my children have such imagination, why was I so blessed?” Amanda wonders as her eyes roll backwards.
The other son is Tom Wingvalley, played by Matthew Raetz.
Just as in Menagerie, Tom is prodded by his mother to bring home a fellow factory worker as a potential love interest for his sibling. With Durang penning this scenario, the worker is a woman, Virginia Bennett, who is definitely not a gentleman caller, but who is so overtly masculine as to be, perhaps, the most manly in the piece. Virginia, who goes by the nickname “Ginny” (as in ginny woman?) is played to sweet perfection by Mary Langley.
Ginny talks very loud to Amanda in part due to cover up the fact that she cannot hear very well. It’s apparently been something she’s been denying her whole life. When she and Lawrence are together a bit later for the first time, he reminds Ginny they had attended high school together and even sat next to each other in glee club. Lawrence recalls Ginny she had given him a nickname based on the garbled interpretation of pleurosis, which Williams first referenced in The Glass Menagerie.
“You used to call me BLUE ROSES,” Lawrence says to Ginny.
“Blue roses? Yes, I remember that, sort of. Why did I do that?”
“I had been absent from school for several months,” Lawrence continued, “and when I came back, you asked me where I’d been, and I said I’d been sick with viral pneumonia, but you thought I said ‘blue roses.'”
Those who are devoted fans of Williams’ classic will obviously get the joke.
Durang, who has made a career out of spoofing the works of other playwrights, loves to weave the threads of other authors into these works with some veiled references – small pebbles, if you will – scattered throughout his works and some outright boulders that cannot be ignored. It’s for that reason that themes found within Eugene O’Neill and David Mamet works might suddenly be part of the storyline.
Not quite as nuanced as Durang’s work, Aguirre-Sarcasa’s Swamp Gothic is a satiric homage to Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer, a gumbo made with native voodoo along with a great deal of low brow references to “Swamp Thing,” zombies and other similar science fiction works.
Raetz returns in this third act as Matthew Cable, a Tulane alumnus looking for his equally handsome school chum, Alec Arcane. Osorio plays Alec, while Leon returns in the role of Abigail Arcane, the love interest in the DC Comics franchise of Swamp Thing. Matthew arrives at Black Water, the spooky mansion situated on the edge of a swamp with threatening man-eating and speaking alligators.
As usual, Augustin Correro takes charge as director. His fellow TWTC co-artistic director Nick Shackleford provides sound design, while Steve Schepker adds the very functional set design and Diane Baas handles the demanding lighting design.
For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls (90 minutes), an evening named for one of three short works by Christopher Durang and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, is presented by the Tennessee Williams Theater Company. Like the title work, both Desire, Desire, Desire (also by Durang) and Swamp Thing by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa satirize Tennessee Williams’ most endearing classics. The show is finishing its three-week run on April 9 at the Lower Depths Theater on the Loyola University campus in New Orleans.