Men in Speedos and women on the verge in a far-out Tennessee Williams
I completely understand why Tennessee Williams’ “The Gnadiges Fraulein” is not often performed. Those who expect the turgid, heavy sensationalism of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” or “A Streetcar Named Desire,” or even the painful melancholy of “The Glass Menagerie” will be disappointed. The script doesn’t play to Williams’ audience. It’s like ordering a lamb chop and being served a steak.
But for those can get beyond their expectations, “The Gnadiges Fraulein” stands up well as a far-out acid trip of a dark comedy.
Williams’ black humor and the sultry Southern setting are two elements that clearly identify this as one of his works. Set on the fictional Cocoloony Key a forgotten spit of white sand and seaweed, supposedly the southernmost stretch of terra firma in the United States the play centers on two batty spinsters who make Blanche Dubois seem stable.
Polly (Beverly Jacob Daniel) is the community newspaper’s society gossip, a post that probably comes with less job satisfaction than Mark Foley’s publicist. She’s looking for nuggets of news from Molly (Susan Sargeant), who runs a shabby flophouse called The Big Dormitory.
Polly and Molly are rivals but also the only person each has that approximates a friend. They sit on Molly’s front porch, rocking in unison with an enthusiasm that borders on orgiastic foreplay, smoking pot and fending off attacks from the cocaloony (Jeff Swearingen), a loud, dangerous, fast-moving pelican-like bird that has a history of plucking out eyeballs.
That’s a fate that befell the Gnadiges Fraulein (Lulu Ward), a faded vaudeville star who competes with the cocaloony for fish in order to pay her rent at the Big Dormitory. No one seems especially troubled that the situation is systematically blinding her.
If all of this sounds outrageously farcical, it’s meant to. The play more closely resembles theater of the absurd than “Streetcar.” If “Waiting for Godot” was rewritten by David Lynch, directed by Quentin Tarantino and cast with the actresses from “Designing Women,” you’d have more or less the hodgepodge of comic elements that combine for this fanciful romp. If there were room in the budget for a kitchen sink, then director Rene Moreno would probably have thrown it in.
There’s a whimsical effervescence in this intimate production that mirrors Williams’ playful use of language. The script is loaded with internal rhymes and sing-songy pacing (“Molly” and “Polly,” “mellowing” and “yellowing” and “connected collaterally with the House of Hapsburg” are just a few that leap out), and WingSpan Theatre’s design complements it.
Randel Wright’s set looks like a tsunami poised to sweep the Big Dormitory into its rightful place in oblivion. The design is largely composed of sheets of paper from other Tennessee Williams plays. The women’s faces are not so much slathered in makeup as they are decorated, like cheap kewpie dolls who fell into the icing on a grocery-store birthday cake.
The costumer must have had a ball condemning the women to frumpy housecoats and pantsuits while letting Swearingen and Joel McDonald walk around the entire time in Speedos. (They provide some necessary eye-candy in contrast to all the tackiness.)
Character development is incidental like Estragon and Vladimir, no one is meant to change. But the acting by the whole cast is wonderfully fearless.
Although there is an intermission, there shouldn’t be. Act 2 runs a brief 30 minutes or so, and the play works best in a single dose, like a flu shot in the rump: You may not fully appreciate it while its happening, but you’re glad you did it.
Bath House Cultural Center, 521 E. Lawther Drive. Through Nov. 11. Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. $12-$17. 972-504-6218.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, November 3, 2006.