‘THE TENNESSEE WILLIAMS PROJECT’
When: Through March 2
Where: The Hypocrites at the Chopin Theatre Studio, 1543 W. Division
Info: (773) 525-5991; www.the-hypocrites.com
Run time: 1 hour and 45 minutes with no intermission
First, a note of caution: “The Tennessee Williams Project,” The Hypocrites’ audacious showcase of three short, rarely produced plays by the dramatist whose major works (“The Glass Menagerie,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”) have long been standard fare, is not for audiences squeamish about overtly transgressive psycho-sexual behavior.
On the other hand, this insightfully mixed-and-matched, often hallucinatory series of voyages into the playwright’s heart of darkness and light can be seen as fascinating side trips to those enduring works, with two of them providing a less censored look at his familiar obsessions. including homoerotic sex, sado-masochism, mother-son relationships, alcoholism, role-playing, love, friendship, loneliness and mortality.
The Hypocrites’ production also thrives on a hugely imaginative, intensely physical collaboration between director Matt Hawkins (who starred as Stanley Kowalski in David Cromer’s memorable revival of “Streetcar” at Writers Theatre in 2010), his ingenious design team (sets by San Stratton, lights by William Kirkham, costumes by Alison Siple and sound by Heath Hays), and his cast of six. And the company’s performance space — the wildly eclectic basement of the Chopin Theatre — could not be more ideally suited to this project.
The first stop is the ornate downstairs lobby area, where you are seated on upholstered chairs and settees — a perfect extension of the French Quarter apartment in New Orleans that is the backdrop for “And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens.” The “queen” in question is Candy (Patrick Gannon is sensational), a well-to-do transvestite with a chronic heart problem who is desperate to keep the company of Karl (the excellent Joseph Weins), the hard-drinking sailor he has picked up. Karl might be straight, bisexual, intensely closeted or just desperate for cash. But there is no denying he is both intrigued and threatened by Candy, who craves companionship more than sex, and whose feminine wiles are at once familiar and terrifying to Karl.
For the second play, “The Remarkable Rooming-House of Mme. Le Monde,” the audience is ushered into a far more bizarre space — a Victorian English style torture chamber outfitted with gymnasts’ rings and ladders. This is where a tightly bound and corseted cripple, Mint (Gannon), is forced to undergo a Sisyphian struggle during a visit by the decadent, misogynistic Hall (stylish Eric Leonard), a fat-cat former classmate at the Scrotum-on-Swansea boarding school. A mother-maid figure, Mme. Le Monde (blackly comic Mary Redmon), serves tea, and easily outdoes Sweeney Todd’s Mrs. Lovett in nefariousness.
The third space entered by the audience is an antiseptic hospital room in St. Louis. Yet this is the backdrop for William’ most spiritual vision. In “The Big Game” (a reference to football, but more crucially, to the game of life), a chronically ill patient, Dave (Gannon), bids an upbeat goodbye to Tony (Weins), a restless college football star who almost lost his leg to an infection but was lucky. He then says hello to Walton (Christopher Meister), a middle aged man about to undergo highly risky brain surgery. All are attended to by a warm-hearted male nurse (Osiris Khepera), and a brusque female one (Redmon). But it is a star-filled universe, glimpsed through a window, that puts everything in perspective here as Williams reminds us that we are all just specks in eternity.