Dusa, Fish, Stas & Vi at Bryant Park Nola through August 18
It’s always a good sign when a new company joins New Orleans’ theater scene, but especially so after the past couple of years of pandemic challenges. So, a hearty welcome to Artistic Director Andrea Watson’s Fat Squirrel whose initial season features a mix of new and classic plays. For its second outing, it’s partnered with Lucy Faust to present a worthy production of Dusa, Fish, Stas & Vi by British playwright Pam Gems.
Dusa, Fish, Stas & Vi offers a portrait of four women living together in London in 1976 as they face a diverse set of trials and tribulations, some of their own making, some thanks to the men in their lives.
Thus Dusa (Faust) is a mother whose estranged partner has kidnapped her two young children, leading her to ruefully observe, “One day, he’s their father…”, adding in frustration “I trusted the bugger!”
Fish (Watson), a political activist, has been dumped by her boyfriend who has taken up with another woman. While it would be wise to move on, she still is desperately in love with him which drives her to stalk him and do other unwise acts.
The demons Vi, short for Violet (Susan Gordon), faces seem to come from within as she refuses to eat and deals with mental health issues, while Stas, short for Anastasia (Desirée Burrell), works as a nurse by day, but by night is a high-paid escort. She also could be described as a casual kleptomaniac, yet still appears to be the most well-adjusted of the four.
In a series of short scenes, Gems shows the moral complexities and little tragedies of these bittersweet lives. As the focus shifts from one woman to another, she skillfully reveals the underlining ironic humor as this tough foursome of gals confronts situations that they themselves may not find so funny.
Yes, the script can be a bit draggy; Fish may admire Rosa Luxemburg but the lecture she gives on the philosopher/revolutionary could be trimmed somewhat. Jokes about Andy Williams and Noam Chomsky seem dated now, but environmental concerns put Gems ahead of her time.
Director Liz Power has done well staging DFS&V in the cramped second floor area of Bryant Park Nola on the edge of the Warehouse Arts District. With lotsa comings and goings into and out of the apartment and its various rooms, a production might be even more effective on a proscenium stage, rather than having the audience on both sides, but we get the general idea of the layout and the ensuing interrelationships of the characters.
Power underscores the show with a period appropriate soundtrack of the era, wisely saving Kate Bush’s 1985 song and current mega-hit Running Up That Hill for the very end. Interestingly, some of the show’s best moments are wordless ones as when the women break into an exuberant celebratory dance or when two of them erupt into a spontaneous laughing jag.
As the droll Fish, Watson gives a precise performance while still leaving some of what haunts this woman, who can help all but herself, to the audience’s imagination. In a world where too often too much is spelled out, such mysteriousness is a bold stroke and pays off.
After a four year hiatus, during which time she “made two tiny humans”, Burrell marks a welcome return to the stage as the most down-to-earth of the bunch. She brings a no-nonsense earthiness to Stas yet flavors it with notes of compassion, humor and a smidge of prickliness that allows you to easily empathize with her.
Faust’s tough fragility (or fragile toughness) well suits the passive aggressive Dusa. As she plays peacemaker among her friends, Faust’s wide expressive eyes convey the sadness of Dusa’s own situation. Unfortunately, the odd acoustics of the playing space and Faust’s unusual timbre combine to swallow up some of her words, especially if she’s facing away from you.
Vi is DFS&V ‘s least well-written role; Gordon and Power do not entirely overcome this. As much an odd duck as a shrinking violet, I’m not sure how much of the oddness is endemic to the part and how much is due to the performance, but, overall, Gordon holds up her end of the four-hander.
A program note explains that Faust first encountered Dusa, Fish, Stas & Vi in college when she played Fish, and “always wanted to do it again at some point in the future.” Fair enough and “Brava!” to her for realizing her dream.
That said, I can think of other works by female playwrights with all women casts that might have offered an even more compelling experience, for example Monkey, Monkey, Bottle of Beer, How Many Monkeys Have We Here? by Marsha Sheiness or Amy Herzog’s Mary Jane.
Still, I’m very happy I finally got to see Dusa, Fish, Stas & Vi after hearing of it for many years. And I’m even happier that Fat Squirrel and Faust did this work rather than subjecting us to another iteration of Crimes of the Heart or, worse, Steel Magnolias.
If Fat Squirrel continues in this vein, I’ll look forward to its productions for many seasons to come.
[Fat Squirrel’s season continues with The Canopic Jar of My Sins by Justin Maxwell (Oct. 19-30) and Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Dec. 7-18), both at the Fortress of Lushington. For more information and tickets, go to https://fatsquirrelnola.square.site/]
Summer & Smoke at the Marigny Opera House through August 27
One never knows quite what to expect from a Tennessee Williams Theatre Company of New Orleans production.
It may be brilliant whether comic, like the hysterical For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls evening of one-acts earlier this year, or dramatic, as was the case with 2019’s galvanizing Suddenly Last Summer.
Or it may be routine and lackluster, such as the undercooked Glass Menagerie, also done in 2019.
Alas, Summer & Smoke, currently playing at the Marigny Opera House, falls into the latter category.
A tale of small town thwarted romance, Summer & Smoke focuses on Alma Winemiller, the local minister’s unmarried daughter, and John Buchanan Jr., son of the town’s doctor and a doctor himself. The two had been childhood friends; something more might’ve blossomed between them but didn’t. Why? Alma’s mother had a breakdown and Alma has had to take care of her, assuming “minister’s wife” duties. Alma has thus had to appear “respectable”, and John is not interested in talking about spiritual matters or attending her culture club.
Alma still carries the torch for John, though; he likes her, yes, but is more interested in gambling, drinking and sex. He doesn’t want to hurt her feelings, but in the claustrophobic atmosphere of Glorious Hill, Mississippi, it’s almost bound to happen. And when it does, well, no spoilers here.
Summer & Smoke has not been done locally in many years and so one can appreciate Director Augustin J Correro keeping its 1916 setting and taking a fairly traditional approach to staging it. Yet his actors deliver performances in a variety of styles and the result is an evening that alternates between naturalism and an almost surreal quality as though Alma might be having a fever dream.
I wish Correro had been bolder. As it is, Summer & Smoke feels distant, a binary story for non-binary times. It’s hard to care about these characters from over a century ago. That’s not to say this portrait of people on the fringe of society is outdated, but had Correro and Costume Designer Grace Smith modernized the setting, we might have been more easily drawn in to its narrative.
The two leads don’t help.
Elizabeth McCoy is simply miscast as Alma. McCoy radiates a strong inner presence and toughness, two qualities that served her very well as Catherine in Suddenly Last Summer; I could certainly imagine her as Saint Joan or Major Barbara or some other Shavian heroine (why aren’t more Shaw plays done here?).
Alma, however, is a more delicate creature and McCoy doesn’t layer her with the requisite gentility and the deeply underlying passion that should emerge only gradually. It’s a potentially fascinating character as the sensuality that appeals to John must go hand in hand with a kind of nerdiness that causes her to go on and on. Unlike Blythe Danner’s touching version of Alma on TV many years ago, McCoy conjures up what the role would be like if Mary Tyler Moore, at her perkiest, had played her.
At least one gets the sense that McCoy understands her character even if she doesn’t fully inhabit her. As John, Justin William Davis may have the looks for this swoon-worthy gent, but brings no poetry to the part, spitting out lines without fully shaping or shading them. His John comes off as not a terrible guy–he truly does try to be nice to Alma–but a player who wants to sleep with everything in a dress; Davis gives little evidence of John’s duality so his final transformation strains credibility.
Correro, a Williams scholar, should have given more guidance to these thespians; as it is, too often he has them looking away from each other when they’re talking which undermines the connection they should have.
One must thus look to two of the supporting players for performances that bring Williams’ words and characters to full-bodied life.
Gwendolyne Foxworth, so memorable as Violet Venable in Suddenly Last Summer, here takes on Mrs. Bassett, an opinionated townswoman and frenemy to Alma. Wickedly snarky, Foxworth plays the music of Williams’ lines beautifully, drawing out vowels to insinuate added layers of meaning.
Dr. Buchanan, John’s father, is embodied by Robert A. Mitchell. Properly stern, he may seem like an authoritarian figure to his wayward son, but expresses a kindly fatherliness to Alma.
I also appreciated Yvette Bourgeois as a singing pupil of Alma’s and Mia Frost as Alma’s mother. Both take chances with brave, idiosyncratic performances that pay off even if they seem to have wandered in from another, more stylized production.
Lizzy Bruce, Mariola Chalas, and Matthew Boese are all fine in smaller roles; Gil Angelo Anfone and George Trahanis, however, are merely amateurish.
TWTC’s next production will be Clothes for a Summer Hotel, Williams’ poetic memory play about the final days of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Running only 15 performances on Broadway in 1980, this is a rare opportunity to see a work around which a mythology of hope and disappointment has sprung up.
[For tickets and more info, go to https://www.twtheatrenola.com/]