Tennessee Williams & New Orleans 2008 – PART 1
Tennessee Williams’ Dueling Divas Hit The Big Easy… Hard
Having just returned from my third spring journey traveling to the incredible Crescent City to perform at and attend the annual Tennessee Williams / New Orleans Literary Festival, my head is full of dizzying pictures and my poor ol’ body is completely exhausted, sufficiently debauched, and probably about 20 lbs. heavier. Still, I’m artistically refreshed and ready to return again as soon as possible.
This year at the 22nd annual TennFest, my dear friend Karen Kondazian and I had the honor to reprise our roles in last fall’s award-winning Fountain Theatre production of Tennessee’s 1963 flop The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, a highly successful revival which won director Simon Levy a Garland Award in March, garnered Shon LeBlanc an LADCC Award for his spectacular costuming, and netted Karen a Best Actress nomination from LA Weekly.
Dubbing our event A Witch and a Bitch, we presented our scenes together from Milk Train at the historic Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre, located right on Jackson Square in the French Quarter and about two doors away from the St. Peter Street flat where Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire. Karen again bellowed her best Williams’ southern diva demands as the dying Flora Goforth, one of the world’s richest women, and I once again donned my best LeBlanc cross-dressing finery as the Marchesa Constance Ridgeway-Condotti, better known on the Italian Riviera as the Witch of Capri.
Thanks to the generosity and ingenuity of David Cuthbert, N’awlins premier theatre writer for the city’s daily Times-Picayune, we were joined onstage by local actor Marshall Harris, who gamely stepped in for us as our Christopher Flanders, the character Williams ominously nicknamed Angel of Death. And here’s what Mr. Cuthbert had to say about A Witch and a Bitch: “As two rich, ailing harpies waiting for the other to croak, Milk Train featured the exotic, larger-than-life Karen Kondazian as Goforth, laying on a thick Georgian accent and exhibiting remarkable pectoral control, and Travis Michael Holder as the cross-dressed Witch of Capri, a sly, malicious performance.”
It was an amazing year for my third slyly malicious appearance at Le Petit, where in 2003 I had the honor to play Williams himself in another transplant from here, the Laurelgrove Theatre’s original production Lament for the Moths, a piece culled from the great writer's mesmerizing but obscure poetry, and where last year I joined Williams scholar Dr. Kenneth Holditch, Louise Shaffer, and my friends Annette Cardona and Jeremy Lawrence for An Ode to Tennessee.
The newly refurbished Muriel’s Cabaret at Le Petit filled to capacity with Williams fans for A Witch and a Bitch, most everyone staying on after our performances to participate in a lively question-and-answer conversation with Karen and I talking about our own personal experiences knowing and working with Williams, and also discussing the pitfalls of performing Milk Train, one of Tennessee’s most difficult and infamously troubled “later” plays, and trying to give some insight about how the über-talented Simon Levy strived to make the play relevant for 21st century theatregoers—especially in LA, a city where audiences seem to have a collected attention span landing somewhere between the 101 and the 405.
Among the participants and attendees at this year’s Fest were Terrence McNally, one of America’s greatest playwrights; columnist and terminal Williams aficionado Rex Reed; Tony-winning producer-director Gregory Mosher, who directed Williams’ last full-length play, A House Not Meant to Stand, at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 1982; David Kaplan, author of Tennessee Williams in Provincetown and artistic director of Provincetown’s own annual Williams Festival; Erma Duricko of New York City’s celebrated Williams-led Blue Roses Theatre Company; Thomas Keith of New Directions, editor and champion of latter-day Williams works; and Mitch Douglas, the playwright’s last agent, a man who must have had the patience of a saint.
Los Angeles was well represented this year, with two of our towns best theatre artists in attendance, director Jenny Sullivan and playwright Tom Jacobson, as well as our town’s best stage manager, Andrea “Ando” Iovino, in town to visit her sister and soon tagged to work at the Fest. Beloved, hardworking and incredibly talented local actor Stephanie Zimbalist of Remington Steele fame joined Reed, former LA actor/playwright Jeremy Lawrence, and Broadway legend Marion Seldes to appear in TennFest’s opening night gala, offering mesmerizing staged readings of Williams’ one-acts Steps Must Be Gentle and This Property is Condemned.
Seldes, who appeared as Mrs. Goforth’s secretary Blackie in the original Milk Train opposite Tallulah Bankhead, Tab Hunter as the Angel and Ruth Ford in my role, also graciously offered insight and humor in a post-performance “talk” with Reed that first night, discussing her career in general and what made Milk Train in particular close after only five performances. After trying to convince Karen and me—with no really clear assurance that she believed it herself—that she had just turned 80 (“Eighty is the new forty,” she quipped), Seldes graciously stayed on for another seminar led by McNally the following day in the ballroom of the Bourbon Orleans, where the next day McNally and Greg Mosher sat to discuss the state of Broadway and the American stage.
Mosher, who won a well-deserved Tony for directing the original Glengarry Glen Ross—and seemed a tad incredulous when I mentioned I’d played Shelly “The Machine” Levene in that play last fall at the same time as I was alternating at the Fountain as the Witch in Milk Train—came up with this year’s best quote from any TennFest event: “Theater is a funny word,” he told his rapt audience. “It refers to a building, it refers to an idea, it’s the way a culture understands itself. Writers help us understand who we are. By nature they’re outsiders and their attitude is, ‘I have a story to tell and by God, you're going to listen.' Producers must step up and make the voices of young playwrights heard.” From your mouth to the Nederlanders’ ears, kind sir.
To be continued next week…