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After the sea-change


The line was from Pere Ubu--the Cleveland post-punk band this time, not Alfred Jarry's equally bizarre creation one century before--and it surfaced while I pondered the negative serendipity of it all. Two Tennessee Williams productions in the region: both notable (and one a season standout), both scheduled months in advance--and both decanted almost immediately after New Orleans went under from Katrina.

"It was a world, a big world--but a world to be drowned in." You could probably even slip the line into Streetcar undetected, either during Blanche DuBois' account of the loss of Belle Reve, or later, while describing the tender mercies of the citizens of Laurel, Miss. in her frenzied, final downward spiral. A week and a half after catching Triad Stage's production of A Streetcar Named Desire , I still can all but hear the words in the unstable, affected music of Barbara Pitts' voice as Blanche.

To be clear, that affectation gave me pause for several days after seeing the production. Now it seems to underscore what for Williams must have been by 1947 the badly slipping artifice, not just of Blanche's warped interpretation of Southern womanhood, but the whole created notion of "Southern aristocracy" itself. When Quincy Dunn-Baker's weasely bully (and Northern transplant) Stanley Kowalski quoted Huey Long, the irony was complete. So what if every man's a king, when none remotely acts like one?

But now we find another larger faaade has slipped and fallen at 632 Elysian Fields, which stands--what's left of it, at any rate--at the border of Wards Seven and Eight, just three short blocks north of the Mississippi River. Like the one in Streetcar, this similarly cherished (but more widely held) misconception also has to do with how certain members of an alleged society are sheltered, protected and provided for.

Again, as in Streetcar, we find that this misunderstanding now has also been brutally stripped away. What was not upended by the elements themselves was subsequently laid waste largely through the good offices of those currently in authority. Apparently they understand the world much differently than we do.

In a time when we have suddenly, dramatically learned the degree to which we have been depending upon the kindness of a number of strangers--including Michael Brown, President Bush, FEMA, the Army Corps of Engineers and the oil and natural gas companies, just for starters--we can no longer claim the luxury of distance on the character of Blanche.

I'd say our circumstances are very closely related. It's time we realized we aren't looking down on her so much as looking across. And, despite the comforting reports from the last three days, let no one here be fooled. The water still surrounds us on all sides. Its level is actually still rising.

Meanwhile, in the Garden District, a couple of miles west by south, there's no telling what's become of the steamy and not entirely civilized arboretum where Williams' Suddenly, Last Summer takes place. Given the already toxic--and primal--nature of its inhabitants, rescuers could well find it flourishing upon their return. If so, they might then find themselves in need of rescue. At least, so we judge by this superb Peace College production. On Sonja Drum's verdant but menacing set, Lynda Clark and Derrick Ivey ably anchor this tense family tragedy as central characters Mrs. Venable and Dr. Cukrowicz. The former is a wealthy, iron-fisted matron, but one in failing health; a woman so maniacally devoted to the preferred aesthetic image of her deceased son that she's willing to have unfortunate niece Catharine (Kristal DeSantis) force-lobotomized because she knows--and says--the truth is different. Ivey's chilly doctor may--or may not--be the man for the job, a condition that fuels this show's considerable suspense.

As the defenseless Catharine trusts her fate to the truth of her tale, a fractured and not entirely complimentary picture of the deceased Sebastian emerges. He's a devoted epicure, but one who only functions (at least in the view of his mother) when the aesthetic bubble between him and all other humans remains untouched. Though what this ultimately does to Sebastian's sexuality and identity perhaps can be predicted, in Williams' script (and DeSantis' closing monologue) the horror of its final flowering is staggering. Strongly recommended: By all means, catch this season highlight before it closes.

We'd make the same recommendation for Theatre in the Park's production of ART, but it closed last weekend, and a bumper crop of simultaneously-opening shows prevented us from catching the first half of its brief, two-weekend run. Ira David Wood III was at the top of his form in his capacities both as director and actor, and David Henderson and Eric Carl were with him in this addled comedy about bad behavior among bosom buddies. The serpentine arguments in which each subsequently tries to prove the other really isn't his bestest friend anymore switched back and forth like demented windshield wipers. Henderson's manic, bravura recital in mid-work about wedding plans gone sour provoked spontaneous extended applause. The second season stand-out of the week--and one we wish we'd seen the week before.

One more New Orleans note to close. Manbites Dog Theater will host After the Deluge, a benefit concert of readings this Sunday night at 7 p.m. At this writing the stellar list of confirmed performers include Elisabeth Lewis Corley, Katja Hill, Greg Hohn, Dana Marks, Carl Martin and Jay O'Berski, reading the works of Gulf Coast literary lights like Tennessee Williams, Robert Penn Warren, William Faulkner and John Kennedy Toole. No reservations will be taken for this special event and tickets are a $10 minimum. All funds from the show will go to disaster relief. I'll see you there.

***1/2The Taming of the Shrew , Burning Coal Theatre--How do you present this politically problematic text to a post-feminist audience? Simple: Make shrew-tamer Petruchio just as over-the-top as the historically dissatisfied Kate. Thus, Nick Barnes swaggers his way through all obstacles--including a fearsome Debra Gillingham--in desert camo chic and the broadest of Aussie accents. Director Jerome Davis shrewdly leaves us wondering what precisely has been resolved between the titled couple in a deliberately ambiguous final scene. Strong acting from principals and supporting actors (including standout Liz Beckham) make this work worthwhile--even if a puzzling attempt to transplant Shrew into an ancient Zen garden makes the production something of an ongoing visual non-sequitur. (Closes Oct. 2.)

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