Guthrie stages a not fully realized
Tennessee Williams' The Night of the Iguana has the potential to be one of those great plays in which not a lot of action takes place, yet the emotional life on stage grips you. The Guthrie Theater's Iguana has much in its favor, but it never quite taps the depths of desperation at its heart, as a super-sensitive, defrocked minister on the edge of breakdown wrestles with cruelty and evil in the world and a delinquent God who created flawed humankind.
The play takes place in 1940, during World War II. On James Youmans' impressively realistic set of a run-down hotel on a cliff top in Mexico, the Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon, working as a tour guide, misleads his busload of college ladies to come to the dilapidated Costa Verde Hotel. He has also led astray an underage girl on the bus. At the hotel, he hopes to find an old friend who has helped him recover from nervous collapse before. But his friend is dead, and his sexually hungry widow, Maxine, now runs the hotel. She desires Shannon. Into this situation walks 40-year-old spinster painter Hannah Jelkes and her 97-year-old poet father, Nonno. There's immediate rapport between Hannah and Shannon, but their connection is of the spirit, rather than of the body.
Shannon's and Hannah's roles have to be pitch-perfect for Iguana to succeed dramatically. The failed reverend is a complex character, shaded by his own darknesses and, under the direction of Jonathan Miller Stephany, Armand Schultz's Shannon is shy of the emotional fragility that his character needs.
In Schultz's hands, Shannon comes across more as a needy man acting out than as a sensitive man, tortured by deep emotional and spiritual demons. I felt Shannon's anger, bitterness at a collectively smug world and his desperate need for attention; I did not feel his inner agony, his fraught reaching towards some sort of redemptive connection. I felt a space between actor and character.
Kate Forbes fares better as Hannah, a reserved beauty from Nantucket, who has been wandering the globe with her grandfather. A penniless pair, he recites his poetry and she sells her paintings at the hotels where they stay to earn their way. Forbes finds Hannah's inner strength, honesty and courage. She's the catalyst that enables Shannon to move through his despair.
In Mathew LeFebvre's faded costumes, both Shannon and Hannah blend into the setting of the decaying Mexican hotel and, in pleasing contrast, the widow Maxine, played by Patricia Hodges, is all toughness and flaunted sex of a very American brand. The strident Miss Judith Fellows played by Barbara Kingsley is also "other" at the hotel. Miller Stephany makes an interesting choice in casting the bird-like Kingsley as the "diesel-driven," butch schoolmarm of Williams' script, but the character works well.
Joel Friedman charms as ancient Nonno, the poet. Local actors Randy Sue Latimer, Michael Tezla, Zach Curtis and Annelise Gould Christ convince as a quartet of robust German guests, who sweep through the set amusingly at intervals, rather in the manner of Shakespeare's rude mechanicals.
A superb directorial touch closes the first act. Marcus Dilliard's lighting and Scott Edward's sound combine in a fierce tropical storm that hammers on the rusty corrugated iron roof of the hotel and soaks the large verandah of the thrust stage.
The good bones of Iguana show through in this less-than-perfect production, and the play is certainly timely, as we confront daily the inhumanities of a war that we initiated and growing poverty and hardship at home.
The Night of the Iguana September 26 - October 19. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays, 7:00 p.m. Call for matinee times. $13 - $48. Guthrie Theater, 725, Vineland Place, Minneapolis. Call 612-377-2224. Toll Free (877) 44 STAGE, or www.guthrietheater.org.
The fun begins in Margolis Brown Theater Company's thoroughly entertaining American Safari (conceived by Tony Brown and Kari Margolis) well before the show begins. As you find your seat, figures on stage move in mesmeric slow motion. A woman dressed in Kelly green fills a watering can with a garden hose strung from aloft and stands like a man relieving himself. A golfer in plus-fours romances his golf bag, an ambivalent mother wrestles with a perambulator, and a gingham-clad couple spin past, seated at a picnic table.
It's the optimistic fifties, a time of confidence that new technology can solve all problems, and it's the beginning of the onslaught of advertising. American Safari leads you on a affectionately mocking trip through the goofy innocence of 1950s Middle America in a series of clever vignettes. Hapless Arthur A. Peterson, in pork-pie hat and plaid jacket, wins a trip to Disneyland and meets the unexpected along the way.
The physical playfulness of the multi-media show reveals itself with wonderful clowning in the opening vignette, as Arthur A, performed by Tony Brown, moves like a stick insect in repeated attempts to stay aboard his sun-bed in the face of a wind, blasting from a battery of fans.
The susceptible Arthur A reels from vignette to vignette, encountering jolly advertising pitches in the lid of a outdoor grill and in his mailbox, all urging him to get a credit card and spend.
You watch him arrive at work, giving a convincing effect of riding a descending escalator. He sits at his desk, accompanied by multiplying videos of himself that mirror his real-time actions. It becomes patently clear that he has nothing to do as he arranges his desk and checks the sharpness of a bunch of pencils. When the workday is over, he appears to descend into his desk.
Arthur A reads the personals in the newspaper and meets a glamorous escort, the woman of his dreams, at a nightclub, and this is the brilliant highlight of the show. He courts an armless mannequin, who seems to glide across the dance floor and come alive in his arms. He makes gestures for her when she hails a waiter and, as she sums him up, hilarious text bubbles of thoughts project onto the screen behind them.
The smiley Arthur A sets off to Disneyland, driving a miniature 1950s finned convertible into a projected video of Route 66, encountering little problems en route. A second highlight comes in Disney's "Future Land," in which a robot-like Brown emulates a poorly filmed clip that extols the virtues of stereophonic sound. Ironically, his lips do not quite match the hearty sound-over.
This slight disconnect between image and perception is a recurring theme in Safari that gently gives the lie to the view that the fifties was a sunshiny time of well-being. One scene in which Arthur A speaks into a vacant microphone has a dark edge to it, as an unseen crowd responds to his nonsense words, like crowds responded to Hitler.
Kari Margolis directed Safari, and she packs each vignette with period songs and witty sound effects designed by Brown. Jim Peitzman's videos and Margolis and Rick Paul's unexpected props are integral to the show. Ensemble pieces fill in between Arthur A's amusing exploits and some are stronger than others, but the whole holds together to paint an kindly, if slightly wry sense of time in American life.
American Safari. September 26 - October 4. Monday September 28, and Thursday through Saturday, October 2, 3, 4. 8:00 p.m. $16 - $23. Margolis Brown Theater Company at the Illusion Theater, 528, Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis. 612-339-4944.