Monday, March 29, 2010

Cat and Elephant

Ashland, Oregon, March 29—

WE SAW TENNESSEE WILLIAMS's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof here yesterday: a fine, complex, noble play; in a resourceful, efficient, moving production; set on an energetic, dedicated, gifted cast. We've seen a number of first-rate productions here at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival; this was one of the best.

Christopher Liam Moore directed. He made his directing debut here last year, in Dead Man's Cell Phone (also an excellent outing). Christopher Acebo's design was striking: a drum of a set enclosed within an enormous white scrim-cloth curtain, bed and bar the most prominent furnishings. It turns the stage into an arena, and Stephanie Beatriz's Maggie-Cat immediately owned it, sultry, restless, rapacious, yet completely sympathetic. She rightly dominated the first act, then stepped back, often literally behind the scenes, to watch Williams's cunningly constructed play evolve; then she returns at the close with her coup de théâtre and a final glowing, tender, fulfilling speech.

Moore uses the last of Williams's rewrites of the text, loosening language that had previously been confined by commercial prudishness but at the same time opening the play to a more ambivalent set of possibilities. And this was underlined by Danforth Comins's portrayal of Brick, Maggie's husband, the sensitive younger son of the family, until now unable to provide continuity to the family line. Among other things, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof portrays alcoholism — perhaps only Malcolm Lowry's novel Under the Volcano does it better — and Comins managed this aspect marvelously, slowly befogging himself throughout the Aristotelian time-unity of the play. But he is not merely weak; nor is he clearly gay: this production goes past the closet drama to get at the even more serious, more fundamental question our century always brings to an examination of true pure friendship among men.

Drink; sex; family. To these add the even more overreaching subject: Death. Michael Winters Is the Big Daddy here, and he's a perfect match to Beatriz and Comins, completing the primary triangle. (The more you think about this play, especially after seeing so fine a production as this, the more you're struck by the geometrical perfection Williams makes of its construction.) Winters easily moves through a wide range of emotional expression: the proud bluster of the dynastic planter; the now tender, now bullying father; the paterfamilias shackled by the conventions of marriage; the exhilaration of a condemned man suddenly given back his life; the poignant awareness of a death all too close after all.

The supporting cast was up to the leads, easily moving from comedy to drama. Only the opening music, too loud, for country fiddle, seemed to miss the mark in an otherwise keenly accurate, perfectly comprehensive, fully resolved production. I wouldn't mind seeing it a second time: alas, it closes before our next visit here in September.
  • Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Bowmer Theatre, Oregon Shakespeare Festival; Ashland, Oregon, in repertory to July 4.

  • GETTING READY for a trip in May to Sicily, I've been reading Vittorini — Elio Vittorini, born in Syracuse in 1908, dead too early, politically disillusioned, in Milan in 1966. I picked up a used copy of A Vittorini Omnibus, a New Directions paperback with a striking black-and-white photo of the author on the cover and a slightly goofy and condescending introduction by Ernest Hemingway. It's stood for years unread on a shelf, but has turned out in the last week to contain three remarkably moving, memorable novellas.

    The first, In Sicily (Conversazione in Sicilia, 1937) is haunting, laconic, cinematic; a Sicilian's return, after years working in the North, to the peasant reality of Sicilian poverty. The article in Italian-language Wikipedia calls it A romanzo onirico, an oneiric novel, to be read either as hallucination or as an allegorical attack on the Fascist government in power at the time of its writing. (Vittorini was expelled from the Fascist party in 1937 for having written in support of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War; he joined the Communist party surreptitiously in 1943, and took part in the Resistenza.)

    In Sicily is indeed a magical, poignant, evocative book, bringing to mind — to my mind anyway — the bleak urban landscapes of Giorgio de Chirico, the ironic intellectualism of Luigi Pirandello, and — strangely — the allusive, not-quite-Surrealist writing in Gertrude Stein's abstract plays. Maybe there's something like Wallace Stevens here too: the elegance, the precision: but far from mandarin.

    The Twilight of the Elephant (Il Sempione strizza l'occhio al Frejus, 1947) takes the style of the earlier novella into an even more abstract place. An old man, once huge and powerful, a rock-blaster on the Frejus Tunnel project below the Simplon Pass in the old days, spends his time sitting stolid, silent, in the doorway. An Elephant, his daughter calls him, proudly but petulantly: she, her husband, their sons and daughters-in-law make do in abject poverty, half their income keeping the useless old man alive.

    Enter a messenger from the gods, in the form of another laborer, from the present day, also cashiered, also apparently at the end of his days. Vittorini spins a pre-Calvino narrative along for pages, mesmerizing the reader with his bare vocabulary, his bleak narrative; finally the only possible meaning in this apparent meaninglessness is revealed.

    Again, politically motivated critics find political allegory here: but is the Elephant the old peasant order, or the newly old petit-bourgeoise order, or the Party? All such readings seem to me off the mark, especially in the wake of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which forms an oddly satisfying counterpoint to Vittorini's novel.

    What they have in common is their reasoned, poetic, accepting view of Death, Death whose monumentality prevails no matter how mortals try to dodge or mask it, no matter how they flinch from it. To insist on a trivial life beyond its reasonable time is to defy the gods: better to realize and adjust to the cosmic justice of its inevitablity. I'd like to think Vittorini and Williams have the chance to congratulate one another on the power of their poetry, somewhere there in the Elysian Fields, even if only in the shape of things utterly submerged in the rich soil beneath.
  • A Vittorini Omnibus: The Twilight of the Elephant and other novels. In Sicily (tr. Wilfred David); The Twilight of the Elephant (tr. Cinina Brescia); La Garibaldina (tr. Francis Keene). New York: New Directions Publishing Corp., 1973
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