by Byron Woods
Here’s a question for long-time theater buffs: What if Tom Wingfield, Tennessee Williams’ pseudonymous narrator in THE GLASS MENAGERIE, had gone on to be a filmmaker instead of a writer—one whose ghostly, black and white footage from his memories keeps shifting between a profound sense of intimacy and a much cooler reserve?
The answer awaits you—through this Sunday, Sept. 26—in one of the most amazing theatrical productions I’ve witnessed in the past few years.
It’s been a while since we’ve covered Triad Stage. The downtown Greensboro theater is about an hour west from the Triangle. But the trip and the ticket in this case are fully justified by what must be called a singularly remarkable new vision of one of the classics in the American theater.
This week, the American Theatre Wing, the founder of the Tony Awards, included Triad Stage in its top ten list of most promising theaters to have emerged in the United States in the last 15 years. With work like this joining previous company standouts including 2004's Hedda Gabler and A Streetcar Named Desire and Master Harold...and the Boys over the following two years, I’m not terribly surprised.
Stage artists and audiences who have long wondered what a nearly perfect merging of theater and foreign film would look like, on the same stage at the same time, should immediately drop all other plans and get to Greensboro this weekend.
Since the dawn of the 1980s I have seen dozens of productions in which stage and film directors, videographers, choreographers and affiliated artists worked the baffling combination lock of multi-media, in the attempt to create a hybrid of theater and film or video that actually functioned, in real-time, during a performance. They’ve used live or pre-recorded footage or both, on everything from small counter-top TVs to wall-sized video projections that dwarfed the performance taking place on stage in their pursuit.
With each successive technical or aesthetic misfire I steadily lowered my expectations.
Invariably, the tape, DVD or digital feed would foul up in cueing or playback. Or the video projector would do something equally disruptive, with an image whose low pixel granularity became more obvious the greater the image was magnified. The video or film became a barricade to the performance, or vice versa—one was a constant distraction from the other. Or a confused audience was never all that certain about which side of the room their attention should be focused. In sci-fi or speculative fiction adaptations, the special effect wasn’t special enough for us to buy it. Or the relationships between the mediated image and the live action—what both ultimately symbolized, and how they worked together—hadn’t been thought through carefully enough.
And so on. And so forth.
It didn’t surprise me that years would pass before artists interested in multi-media fusion would find workable live-performance models and techniques. After all, it’s been barely 30 years since the very primitive beginnings of consumer-grade video, with high-grade recording, editing and projection only becoming a relatively common commodity within the past decade or so. Years ago, it became obvious to me that a staggeringly high number of artistic and technical choices had to work flawlessly in order for the two mediums to fuse correctly in a show.
I began to doubt I would ever see a production that nailed it.
That was before I walked into the Pyrle Theater at Triad Stage last week.
So far, I’ve gushed about an incredible technical fusion of live and projected images in this production. But there are at least two more unconventional sides to the triumph at Triad Stage. One, as you can see, involves stage design. The other is in direction and acting.
In lieu of conventional program notes, artistic director Preston Lane has penned an open letter to the playwright in the playbill to the show. I’d like to quote a passage from it here:
“We theater artists have labored so long under the shadow of the monumental performances and the theatrical legend of the original production of Menagerie that we have forgotten to read your play, your vision. We have ignored your wishes. We have taken a play that you say is not realistic and we have weighed it down with the very theatrical conventions you spent your career seeking to upend. We have distorted its spine by neglecting its structure. We have diluted its impact with sentimentality and familiarity.”
By themselves, those words would nearly be enough to get me up to Greensboro. In an earlier essay on this play I noted that Tennessee Williams was no nostalgist in The Glass Menagerie. I’ve long been convinced that the period-piece productions that have kept his characters swaddled in the protective cotton gauze of infrequently visited memory was, on some level, the antithesis of what the playwright was aiming for in this work.
When an artistic director liberates himself from 66 years of schmaltz that have accumulated around a script, any number of discoveries might take place.
Here, Anya Klepikov is spared the useless fate of duplicating yet another photorealistic autopsy in her scenic design. On her deceptively minimal set, the actors walk across a clear, transparent surface—one suspended mere inches above a field of broken glass. Above the stage, a true menagerie with dozens of glass animals are suspended at various heights, with equally clear incandescent lightbulbs scattered through the mix. A see-through version of a phonograph player sits in one corner.
Along the same lines, the benches and other few props used in the show are seemingly reduced to their outlines, traced in a shade of white similar to the minimal hues in which designer Kelsey Hunt clothes the actors. Above the set, lighting designer Norman Coates conspicuously places professional-grade softbox lights more at home in a film or photographic studio much closer to the stage than the conventional theatrical lights far above on the grid.
Thus, we are placed in an abstraction of human memory from the start — one with a visual chill that is fully reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick — before the first word of Williams’ text is ever spoken.
Matthew Carlson’s interpretation of Tom is nothing if not sober. Under Lane’s direction, he’s the narrator who already knows how the story will end before he begins his tale.
But just as impressive here is his—literal—cinematography. As the scenes between mother Amanda and daughter Laura play out, Carlson moves, slowly, unobtrusively, at the edges of the stage, carefully filming his mother’s interactions with his sister. At times his camera gradually zooms in for a close-up; elsewhere, it expands to frame the scene we’re seeing from a slightly different angle.
Those images are projected, either in sepia or black and white, against the dim back wall of the stage. Only occasionally do we see them juxtaposed against previously recorded footage.
These moving pictures don’t pull us from the world we’re witnessing: if anything, they reinforce it. The images are clearly meant to represent the footage of Tom’s memories: what his character sees when he looks back. Yes, they are a lot bigger than he is. We conclude they’re supposed to be—that the movie screen in the mind they’re projected on is that large, and hard to look away from.
Both Kate Goehring’s interpretation of Amanda and Cheryl Koski’s take on Laura avoid the stereotypes we’ve seen in other versions. In dialing down the excesses associated with these characters, Lane deliberately presents us with a smaller—and more human-sized—tragedy than the artificially inflated renditions long associated with the work.
The result is the strongest and most memorable theater—and film—experience I've ever had in the same room at the same time. This Glass Menagerie is not to be missed.