Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at Le Petit through April 2
Night of the Iguana at Loyola’s Lower Depths Theatre
New Orleans generally sees an uptick in production s of Tennessee Williams plays in March as the dramatist’s birthday falls on the 26th of the month. Hence, the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival blossoms each year around this time and, with it, presentations of his works.
Unlike some years which bring out lesser known titles of his, 2023 saw two of Williams’ major works being given high profile productions. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Night of the Iguana both feature animals in their titles and, interestingly, while they are two very different creatures, the presentations, one uptown, the other downtown, turned out to be similar in a number of ways.
At Loyola’s Lower Depths Theatre, The Tennessee Williams Theatre Company of New Orleans presented Night of the Iguana, Williams’ acclaimed tale of spiritual redemption set at a cheap hotel on the Pacific coast of Mexico involving a defrocked priest-cum-tour guide, a prim portrait painter, and the lusty owner of the hotel. At Le Petit, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof continues with its powerful story of two generations of a wealthy Mississippi Delta family and their battles over love and money.
For me, the biggest takeaway from each of these productions is how, in the right hands, a secondary character can have a major impact.
In Cat, Diana E.H. Shortes plays Mae, the daughter-in-law of Big Daddy and Big Mama, owners of a 28,000 acre plantation. In Night, Lizzy Bruce portrayed Judith Fellowes, the leader of a group of female tourists from a Texas church. Each ignited the stage whenever they came on, their depictions so precise as to extract every bit of personality from their characters.
Shortes found both the humor and meanness in Mae, or rather, the meanness that makes her simultaneously comic and pitiful. Her Mae may be crass but she’s by no means stupid, knowing just how to turn a phrase or word for maximum effect. This Mae is a matriarch-in-waiting, ever-watchful for how she can improve her and her husband’s place in the family’s pecking order. With the intuition of a grandmaster and the force of a tornado, Shortes’ Mae ensures that attention will be paid to her and her brood.
Likewise, Bruce captured Fellowes’ righteous indignation and inflated it to the breaking point, while always staying grounded in authentic emotions. If her exasperation is utterly valid, Bruce made clear Fellowes’ clueless inability to deal successfully with others, dispensing buckets of vinegar when a few drops of honey might work better. When the Reverend Shannon calls her a “dyke”, whether she is or is not doesn’t really matter; as Bruce registers and then ignores his venom, she made clear that this is probably not the first time Fellowes has been called that, the slur still stinging nonetheless.
Both Shortes’ and Bruce’s portrayals bordered on, but never crossed the line into, the cartoonish, as they fulfilled the demands of Williams and gave full-throttled life to these minor but vitally important characters of his.
Elizabeth Argus as Big Mama is similarly excellent, mining her every word for subtle meanings and, by doing so, revealing Big Mama’s innate pride, clingy love, and essential toughness, without ever falling into Steel Magnolias-ish caricature. (What Argus can’t do, because it doesn’t really seem to be in the script itself, is justify or make creditable Big Daddy’s accusation that Big Mama is “trying to take over the place.”) Following last fall’s The Seagull; or, How to Eat It, it’s been a pleasure watching Argus expand her range from musical comedy into drama.
Also memorable are the changes the directors, Augustin J Correro (Iguana) and Salvatore Mannino (Cat), made to the scripts.
Correro updated Iguana’s action to Jan. 6, 2021 and wisely replaced Williams’ German tourists who sing Nazi marching songs with a red, white’n’blue bathing-suited, MAGA hat-wearing, selfie-taking family, wonderfully enacted by Kyle Daigrepont, Andrea Dubé, Matthew Raetz and Lauren van Mullem. Sure, they’re caricatures, but they drive home Williams’ point, as Germans would have 16 years after the end of WWII, that one can’t escape malignant global forces, even in the backroads of Mexico.
At Le Petit, Mannino excised all of Big Daddy’s racist utterances, even references to “field hands”, reportedly to avoid offending anyone. This seems to miss the point. Williams meant Big Daddy to be offensive, his Weltanschauung representative of his class; Williams may have hoped this worldview would fade away like the dinosaurs but, sadly, we’ve seen it just morph into something equally noxious (e.g., those MAGA hat wearers). Instead, as Big Daddy speaks of “compassion” to his son Brick in the powerful second act finale, he comes off as almost saintly; while such “compassion” may extend to homosexuals, as Big Daddy became the beneficiary of the gay couple who had previously owned the plantation, it seems unlikely to apply to Blacks as well.
Otherwise, Correro and Mannino both offered pretty traditional (other than a cell phone or two in Iguana), straightforward stagings and overall interpretations. In each production, one wishes there would have been a little more movement as both feature visually static stretches. And I don’t understand why each director has actors just looking out at the audience as they deliver their lines; shouldn’t they (Brick/Big Daddy, Hannah/Shannon) be facing the person they’re speaking to and connecting, intimately, with them?
In Cat, Jonathan Mares (Brick) and Silas Cooper (Big Daddy), while in Iguana, Justice Hues (the painter Hannah Jelkes), Lauren Wells (hotel owner Maxine Faulk) and Jake Wynne-Wilson (Shannon), all gave very good, intelligent performances, but could have been even better had they probed their lines even more deeply, allowing all the nuances and subtleties in Williams’ glorious language to come through, as Argus, Bruce and Shortes had done.
And then there’s the Maggie of Mona Nasrawi. She clearly understands the contours of the role, but doesn’t always connect the dots of her long monologs in Act One. Nor does she have the feline slinkiness that “Maggie the Cat” should have; Mannino doesn’t help by having her clambering onto the set’s big bed a number of times.
Nasrawi may gives us a coarser, weaker Maggie than we’re used to (she seems no match for Big Mama or Mae), but because of this, intentionally or not, this is the rare Cat where Brick’s being fed up with and no longer interested in his wife makes sense.
Iguana has finished its sold-out run; Cat has another weekend. What kind of menagerie will next year bring?
[For more information and to get tickets to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Le Petit’s next production, August Wilson’s How I Learned What I Learned starring Lance E. Nichols (April 20–May 7), go to https://www.lepetittheatre.com/listings/events/]
MOMIX in Alice at the Mahalia Jackson Theater
MOMIX is the 42-year-old dance-illusion troupe founded by Moses Pendleton, who is also one of the original members of Pilobolus. Alice is of “Wonderland” fame. Put them together and you get MOMIX in Alice which the New Orleans Ballet Association (NOBA) recently presented at the Mahalia Jackson Theater.
Comprised of two acts and 22 short scenes, MOMIX in Alice (also billed as Alice By MOMIX) gives an impressionistic view of Lewis Carroll’s fantasy novel, with a terpsichorean interpretation of the characters and some of its passages. Swan Lake it ain’t, but, then again, it doesn’t want or try to be “classical” ballet or even modern dance.
What this Alice does provide is almost like a trippy variety show demonstrating the range of Pendleton’s bountiful imagination and the athletic/acrobatic talents of the nine company members of MOMIX.
For my taste, MOMIX in Alice started off a bit slowly. Maybe it was the drony music that recalled some of the more precious moments from Cirque du Soleil extravaganzas. Or that the first half dozen or so segments seemed more presentational as they introduced March Hares, “The Tweedles”, a Cheshire Cat and a Blue Caterpillar. I couldn’t put my finger on it but it just didn’t grab me.
Then came “The Lobster Quadrille”, however, which wowed. In it, four women emerged wearing hoop-skirts, a blood-red outer fabric layer covering a jet black crinoline underneath. Designed by Phoebe Katzin, these red garment cloths could be raised high above the dancers’ heads to create bell-like structures or bizarre headpieces, weird insect-like faces or sculptural representations of women’s private parts. The overall conception of this dance was simple, its precise execution, sublime.
Almost as transfixing was the first act finale, “Cracked Mirrors”, in which four dancers manipulated Mylar and aluminum panels that caused them to seem both doubled and halved. As they seemingly floated in the dimness of Michael Korschi’s lighting, I wondered if they were zooming around on some sort of rigging or just moving swiftly on the ground or what it was they did to create such extraordinary effects. I never did figure it out. But I didn’t want it to end.
If none of the segments of Act Two rose to that level of ingenuity, there were still creeping spiders and cascading roses and twirling playing cards to amuse and beguile.
Following the impressive Kyiv City Ballet and the hi-jinks of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, MOMIX’s Alice provided surreal fun and expanded the stylistic range of NOBA’s season.
[NOBA’s next presentation will be the State Ballet of Georgia on April 22 at the Mahalia Jackson Theater. For tickets and more information, go to https://nobadance.com/performances/state-ballet-of-georgia/