Portrait of the Artist as a Young Recently Closeted Gay Man

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theatre for KCRW.

In 1977, after a decade of drowning his demons, Tennessee Williams finished an autobiographical play he'd started 40 years before. On the page, the play reads a bit like a 'Portrait of the Artist as a young-recently-closeted-gay-man.' At its center is a young 'writer' living in a New Orleans' boarding house trying to find his voice. Panned as the mutterings of a genius past his prime, Vieux Carré closed after only six performances on Broadway. This is not Williams at his best...and yet in the hands of Elizabeth LeCompte and the Wooster Group it becomes a window into the writer's tortured soul and a piece of theater not to be missed.

wooster3.jpgThe Wooster Group takes Williams' boozy murmurs and shouts them clearly. The latent sexuality, for instance, comes out of the closet. Take the character Nightingale, played by Scott Shephard, who serves as sexual initiator and predator for our 'writer'. LeCompte boils him down to his carnal essence in a perpetually open kimono revealing an erect plastic dildo. It's so overt and over the top...but what should be caricature burns through as if to say, "Yeah, that's who he is. Get over it and just listen to what he's saying."

Generally, older plays are treated like fossils -- with almost archaeological reverence. But the Wooster Group treats Vieux Carré as a point of departure weaving into this adaptation their signature multimedia scores. The New Orleans flophouse where the action takes place is captured simply by a series of rolling steel platforms with the barest suggestion of headboards and burned out light bulbs. Mashed together with Williams' words are fragments of Pink Floyd's The Wall, bits of 70's disco and live video super-imposed video over what feels like a vague memory of vintage porn. It's a fever dream that captures the painful line between memory and desire.

The result is an odd mix that is both undeniably a Wooster Group piece and also undeniably Tennessee Williams. Ironically, rather than obscuring Williams' words, LeCompte's approach serves to reveal them.

wooster2.jpgAnd that's what's truly shocking about this adaptation. Not the plastic dildo or the tongue-in-cheek delivery, but how remarkably faithful it is to Williams' text. What burns through are the words.

It's like that quintessential LA experience of listening to the radio on the freeway. You'd think that will all the distractions, the lane changes, the traffic, the visual blur, the radio would get lost in the shuffle. But somehow there's enough noise for you to be quiet and listen to the words.

As LeCompte and the actors navigate through a dreamlike fog of sound cues and cultural references what emerges is enough distraction to get the audience to actually listen. And even though, as I said, this may not be William's finest work, it is still very much worth listening to.

The Wooster Group's Vieux Carré plays through December 12 at REDCat in Downtown Los Angeles.

For info on the show text the word curtain to "69866."

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theatre for KCRW.

Banner image of Ari Fliakos and Kate Valk in Vieux Carré: Nancy Campbell