The Far South
In his best plays, Tennessee Williams uses vivid imagery and poetic dialogue to evoke feeling -- instead of explaining it to death, which is the preferred method used by many of today's psychodramatists. In fact, as illustrated by Germinal Stage Denver's Noh theater-style production of Suddenly Last Summer, Williams's powers of suggestion are more strikingly compatible with ancient Japanese dramatic practices than one might ever imagine. While director Ed Baierlein's daring approach takes some getting used to, theatergoers will be best served if they freely surrender their intellects at the door and put their faith in the performers' impressive -- and often mesmerizing -- efforts.
A highly stylized, classical form dating to the fourteenth century, Noh combines music, movement, sound effects and the spoken word to emphasize a story's ideas, as opposed to merely furthering its plot; some elements are rooted in Buddhist ceremonies that, like Medieval church rituals, used performance to demonstrate their teachings. In keeping with Noh tradition, GSD's entire production is performed on a raised, square platform made of (simulated) polished cypress wood; a small area on the audience's right-hand side serves as home base for the three-person chorus. On the left side of the platform, a short bridge connects to the backstage area and, as any savvy Noh-goer knows, is the entrance for all of the main characters. (In most Noh theaters, the bridge is thirty feet or longer and, like the stage, is covered by a roof reminiscent of the temples where the art form originated.) On the floor in front of the gangway are three pine saplings, which represent heaven, earth and man. At the rear of the platform is a cypress-wood screen with a painting of a leafy plant camouflaging a dog-like animal with its teeth bared. Slightly left of center, three black cylinders make up a sitting area for the troubled souls who inhabit this mini-Noh playhouse -- a marvelous setting (designed by Baierlein) that, along with costumer Sallie Diamond's tasteful creations, is inspiring enough to make the staunchest of Williams purists think about vocalizing a Southern-style "Om."
As the lights dim to recorded musical accompaniment, though, it seems more appropriate to maintain a respectful, attentive silence. Three chorus members (Lori Hansen, Jamie Menard and Laura Booze) enter and silently kneel on the small side platform. Dressed in brown pants and jackets that bring to mind the uniforms worn by martial-arts students, the trio carries out a variety of tasks during the course of the eighty-minute, intermissionless drama. They noiselessly slip offstage (through the "hurry door" opposite the bridge) to retrieve the occasional prop, don costume pieces while impersonating minor roles and punctuate the leading characters' speeches by repeating dialogue or providing sound effects, including audible exhalations.
After the chorus members settle into their places, a similarly clad actor enters, followed by an actress wearing a black kimono-like outfit and gray fright wig with tightly interwoven gold braids hanging from it. We soon discover that the first actor (Marc K. Moran), who cradles a short, scepter-like dowel rod in the crook of one arm, is playing Dr. Cukrowicz, a young neurosurgeon. And that his rather regal companion (Erica Sarzin-Borrillo), who grasps a black cane directly in front of her body for nearly the entire show, is portraying Mrs. Venable, a Southern matriarch whose son, Sebastian, died the previous summer while vacationing in the tropics with his cousin, Catherine Holly (Katharyn Grant). Vexed by Catherine's bizarre account that Sebastian was killed and eaten by cannibals (as well as rumors that her son, like playwright Williams, was homosexual), Venable seeks to suppress Catherine's version of events by having her committed to a mental institution. After talking over the matter with Venable, Dr. Cukrowicz tries to extract the truth from Catherine, who, before spilling the beans about Sebastian, recounts stories about her childhood while seemingly under the influence of some sort of truth-telling drug. As Catherine rambles on, we're introduced to her clueless mother (Booze), her snooty brother, George (Menard), and her maniacal Catholic-school teacher, Sister Felicity (Hansen).
Despite the fact that mastering the art of Noh performance requires years of rigorous training and a lifetime of practical experience, director Baierlein elicits solid work from the cohesive ensemble. The performers' movements are suitably taut without appearing tense, their focus intently defined yet not too literal, their speech patterns formal and precise while expressing a full range of emotion. During one scene, Sister Felicity gets burned by Catherine's wanton ways when Grant stuffs a dowel rod into Hansen's hand to simulate putting out a lit cigarette in the nun's palm: The performers' actions -- and reactions -- are broad yet specific enough that the audience doesn't need additional words to describe their relationship. A few minutes later, Booze summons Mrs. Holly's prattling nature by clicking finger cymbals and taking quick, bow-legged steps -- calculated physical actions that make being a busybody seem more like a religious vocation than the stereotypical fruitcake that many a clucking character actress makes of the part. And Moran, who curls his arms inward and sports a perpetually sinister look on his face, is progressively convincing as the coolly analytical, strangely menacing doctor.
As the haughty Venable, Sarzin-Borrillo leads the company with a virtuoso performance that's marked by two episodes in particular: When Venable describes a flock of birds, the actress beautifully suggests their flight by executing several fluttering movements with her fan. A couple of scenes after Venable exits to partake of her usual afternoon drinking ritual, Sarzin-Borrillo re-enters from the bridge and, lacquered daiquiri glass twirling in her outstretched fingers, slowly shuffles down a makeshift ramp as if the bottoms of her bejeweled feet were made of silk and her bewigged countenance held aloft by a tankful of helium. Her efforts are wonderfully contrasted by Grant's more naturalistic, relaxed portrayal of the addled Catherine. Quietly murmuring, "We all use each other and that is what we think of as love," Grant locates Catherine's desperate need to reclaim control over her fleeting sanity as well as her shattered emotional state. And when she describes Sebastian's last few hours on the seashore, Grant's carefully modulated vocal delivery nicely underscores Hansen's pantomime of the dead, Panama-hat-wearing poet.
Yes, it's initially jarring to hear the Japanese-attired actors drawl their lines while assuming physical attitudes that belie their characters' Southern origins. And, given Noh's emphasis on evoking mood, the plot is sometimes hard to follow (something that Eastern audiences don't typically have to worry about since the basic Noh repertory hasn't changed much in the last 400 years). Gradually, though, Baierlein and company's formal, restrained and indirect approach complements the action in ways that frequently elude groups bent on milking every drop of turgid realism out of Williams's talky play.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Denver art and theater scene.