Monday, September 24, 2012

Off Off Broadway: Something Wild...

Semantha Steinmetz and Jack Haley in 27 WAGONS FULL OF COTTON.  Photo by Cecilia Senocak
Pook’s Hill, a new theatre company dedicated to the production of classic plays, is currently staging Something Wild…, three one act plays by Tennessee Williams, at the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex on West 36th Street.  The three plays - 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, Hello From Bertha, and This Property Is Condemned - share a common theme: in each, the protagonist is a woman who has been victimized, brutalized, exploited, or abused and who, as a consequence, is now mentally deranged, on the verge of death, or both.
In 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, the first and by far the best of the three plays, Jake Meighan (Jack Haley) burns down the cotton mill of his rival, Silva Viccaro (Brian Gianci).  Jake then pressures Flora (Semantha Steinmetz), his childless, sexually submissive, somewhat masochistic, and simple-minded wife, to provide him with an alibi but, whether inadvertently or purposefully, she fails to do so.  When Silva realizes that Jake is responsible for the fire, he seeks revenge by seducing (or raping – it’s not clear which) Jake's wife -  the first of Williams’ three victimized women.  (We meet the other two – Bertha and Willie, in Hello From Bertha and in This Property Is Condemned).  Only this time we can’t really be sure that Flora is a victim after all.  Given her submissive nature, her mild masochism, and her apparently long-festering resentment of her husband, one can only wonder whether her “accidental” betrayal of him was truly accidental or not and whether her succumbing to Silva wasn’t what she really intended in the first place.
In Hello From Bertha, the second and not nearly as successful play on the program, the victimized female protagonist is Bertha (Andrus Nichols), an aging whore in a run-down brothel who is not only sick but probably paranoid as well and ostensibly on her deathbed.  What little plot there is revolves around Bertha’s tentative reaching out to a former lover, but nothing comes of that and, relative to Williams’ other works, the play itself proves to be a meandering disappointment.
David Armanino and Tess Frazer in THIS PROPERTY IS CONDEMNED.  Photo by Cecilia Senocak.
Which brings us to Willie (Tess Frazer) the almost preternatural sylph in This Property Is Condemned.  Having been abandoned sequentially by both of her parents only to lose her older sister to tuberculosis, Willie is a street urchin who scavengies for food, fantasizes about following in her sister’s footsteps by trading sexual favors for a more glamorous life, and otherwise spends her days tightrope walking along a railroad track with the sole goal of going a bit farther than she had before without falling off.  When she comes upon Tom (David Armanino), a callow youth playing hooky from school so that he might fly his kite, nothing very dramatic occurs but we are treated to Williams’ marvelous literary exposition of the almost surrealistic life and mind of this third in his series of victimized women.

All three of the actors in 27 Wagons Full of Cotton – Samantha Steinmetz, Jack Haley, and Brian Gianci – are truly outstanding in their respective roles but special recognition must be accorded Ms Steinmetz whose nuanced portrayal of a mentally challenged, sexually confused, and alternately submissive and manipulative woman is really extraordinary.  And Tess Frazier in This Property Is Condemned deserves similar praise for her exceptional rendition of the otherworldly Willie. 

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