Musical company

FOR WHOM SOUTHERN BELLE TOLLS at Tennessee Williams Threatre Company

Photo by James Kelley

Back on stage since the pandemic shutdown, a New Orleans theater company has been sorely missed. The Tennessee Williams Theater Company and its current production of FOR WHOM THE SOUTHERN BELLE TOLLS is a comedic adventure that will provide audiences with the best medicine of all.

FOR WHOM THE SOUTHERN BELLE TOLLS is a 90-minute collection of short plays featuring some of Williams’ most memorable characters, such as Blanche Dubois (and a Maggie or two…), performed by an ensemble cast. The three short plays take place separately from each other, connected only by the actors playing them, which could mean going from Big Daddy to Amanda Wingfield in moments.

While Williams is known for his Southern dramas, this evening of theater, directed by Augustin J. Correro, is an SNL-like satire. It’s a refreshing approach to his writing that fits perfectly with TWTC’s production style and a cast of actors as goofy and engaged as the material demands. And after battling a pandemic for two years, it feels good to tiptoe (or stomp) in the direction of melodrama.

Desire, desire, desire

BWW Review: FOR WHOM THE SOUTH BEAUTIFUL TOLLS at Tennessee Williams Threatre Company
Photo by James Kelley

The first of the evening was “DESIRE, DESIRE, DESIRE”, written by Christopher Durang. As a playwright, Durang’s works are simultaneously silly, clever, cynical and over the top. He may have an acquired taste, but he’s perfect for parodying Williams. With his background in writing delightfully deranged characters, it’s exciting to see what he can do with Williams’ dramatic characters.

Except it’s not so much drama as hilarity.

In ‘DESIRE, DESIRE, DESIRE’, Durang takes Williams’ NAMED DESIRE STREETCAR and somehow puts Blanche through even more of a ringtone than in the original if you can believe it. The plot centers on his life with Stanley (Mary Langley), who periodically yells for Stella – whose trip to the store for Blanche’s lemon coke has been going on for six years.

It’s funny and wickedly clever as characters from other Williams plays suddenly appear on the Kowalskis’ doorstep so fast you almost feel like you’re watching a prank. Now Blanche must deal with not one but TWO Maggie the Cats (Lizzy Bruce and Jeffher Osario) who rob Stanley after pretending he’s Brick. While STREETCAR and HOT TIN ROOF are the primary targets, Durang also references several other plays that audience members will enjoy catching, such as GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS AND NIGHT MOTHER.

Everyone is so caught up in the absurdity that no one listens when Blanche talks about Belle Rêve or her tragic first love. You know things are bad when Blanche aspires to be in STREETCAR. DESIRE presents one of the two standout performances of the night, with Breland Leon delivering a hyperdramatic and hypersexual Blanche.

For whom the beauty of the south rings

BWW Review: FOR WHOM THE SOUTH BEAUTIFUL TOLLS at Tennessee Williams Threatre Company
Photo by James Kelley

The second short film and title of the evening is “FOR WHOM THE SOUTHERN BELLE TOLLS”, a wild parody of THE GLASS MENAGERIE by Williams, also written by Durang. TWTC veteran Tracey E. Collins plays the controlling but often confused matriarch Amanda Wingvalley. A fading Southern belle, Amanda tries to groom her hypochondriac son Lawrence to receive a “female caller”. At the same time, she belittles Tom (Matthew Raetz) for escaping to the movies every night, after which he often brings home a stray sailor who may have “missed his boat.”

Lawrence prefers to spend time with his collection of glass cocktail stirrers as he is terrified of human interaction and tries to make himself rare all evening. This will not sit well with Amanda, who wants her children to grow up and be happy. And above all just to be gone.

Instead of the fragile Laura, who collects equally delicate glass animals, we get Roman Ellis as the heartbreakingly comical Lawrence. His mother belittles him and he refuses to leave the house because of his lameness. And also his asthma. And also his eczema. No wonder he’s hypersensitive. Terrified of the outside world, he remains glued to his glass cocktail sticks, which he lovingly, if not imaginatively, names.

Tonight Tom brought home his colleague Ginny, a loud, hard of hearing but affable girl played hilariously by Langley. Lame jokes based on misunderstood misunderstandings abound. It’s no wonder Amanda tries to face it all with charm when in reality, she just wants to punch someone.

Swamp Gothic

BWW Review: FOR WHOM THE SOUTH BEAUTIFUL TOLLS at Tennessee Williams Threatre Company
Photo by James Kelley

In “SWAMP GOTHIC,” the final story of the evening, a handsome college student (Raetz) risks man-eating alligators and voodoo zombies to find his equally handsome missing best friend. SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER meets Swamp Thing in this short film by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa.

While not as comedic as the previous two plays, this story was visually stunning in part by Steve Schepker’s set design, Baylee Robertson’s costumes, and Kenneth Thompson’s delightful alligator puppet.

But if you’re like me and like a bit of horror kitsch in theater, this one is still a gem.

You don’t have to major in literature to see these three plays, each featuring several laugh-out-loud moments. There are plenty of obscure references, literary and otherwise, so it will be even more fun if you know the references.

It’s crucial when you’re doing this kind of production that you don’t make fun of the original material. You still have to respect and pay homage, so it’s always refreshing to see TWTC productions dig into the material, find the jokes, and not make a big cartoon out of it.

The production takes gender/sexuality liberties in content and casting, and while that may make some people grab their pearls, this review has to say it can’t think of better characterizations. The hard work of the cast shows and pays off as the night ends with thunderous applause.

It’s a wacky tribute to one of our greatest playwrights, and Williams himself would have loved it.