40-year old Williams play gets U.S. premiere at Ptown Fest
Nick Potenzieri, artistic director of the Infinite Theatre in New York, takes a break to reflect on the play he's rehearsing, Tennessee Williams' "I Never Get Dressed Till After Dark on Sunday," a one-act that will have its United States premiere at the sixth annual Tennessee Williams Theatre Festival in Provincetown on September 21.
The day before, he was some 3,000 miles away - having just attended the Edinburgh Fringe Festival; but if he was jet-lagged, he didn't sound it.
"We're starting to think about branching out," Potenzieri says of his scouting expedition to what is generally considered the world's most-esteemed fringe fest on behalf of his troupe, "and I think the Infinite Theatre is a great fit for future festivals there."
And then he pauses, considering what he called "the logistics," those nitty-gritty details that hamper all small theatre operations, namely travel and finances.
"Well, yes," he says, making an audible sigh, "there are always the financial aspects to worry about. But we have some experience now having taken a previous production we did to Mississippi."
Naked and honest
He’s talking about the rousing treatment, under his direction, of Tennessee Williams’ "Orpheus Descending," a difficult and sprawling work which had two successful appearances at previous Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festivals. Those productions - I attended the first one at a church on Commercial Street -- were given inspired, jarring and poetic treatments.
But "Orpheus," and his work on Williams’ "Hotel Plays" for the Festival, is behind him now. What he’s presently faced with is taking a script never before produced during Williams’ lifetime and, as he says, "putting it on stage as nakedly and as honestly as I can."
"I Never Get Dressed..." was first produced in England last year on the occasion of Williams’ centenary where it garnered mixed reviews. Several critics made reference to the fact that Williams had just emerged from a stay in a rehabilitation clinic in 1970, which, they posited, dulled his creative prowess. These accusations against Williams’ personal life - which was wracked by addictions and emotional upheavals - was frequently cited by reviewers during his life, and it persists to haunt criticism of his work since.
"The play has moments of real emotional power," wrote Lynn Gardner in The Guardian in March 2011, "but ultimately feels as inessential as staging Williams’ lost shopping list."
Andrejej Lukowski, writing in Time Out London, also from March 2011, wasn’t any kinder, calling Williams’ one-act a "self-indulgent muddle."
None of these barbs are lost on Potenzieri or the Festival’s producers.
"The play, which is a play-within-a-play, explores the deep love that exists between two people where they get to express not only what they love about each other but what they hate about each other," Potenzieri says. "It has violent, volatile moments as the characters learn how to look at the reality of their lives and push each other’s emotional buttons. It is a one-act, but it seems larger, and it is stirring."
It was chosen, says David Kaplan, the Provincetown Festival’s curator and impresario, because it fit into the theme being put forth this year, titled Tennessee Williams and Music.
"I’d read the play fast years ago and had forgotten that it had so much music," Kaplan says. "What I remembered was the self-portrait of Tennessee Williams defending himself to the actors in rehearsal. When I was researching the songs for the Tennessee Williams Songbook, Thomas Keith [Williams’ editor at New Directions publishing] reminded me there was a lot of music in ’I Never Get Dressed...’ and, yes, there is. The music in the play is used to set the scene that’s being rehearsed: it sets the scene literally, that the time and place of the play within the play is different than the time and place of the rehearsal. It sets the scene emotionally, of course, and often ironically."
Williams, who died in 1983, left behind a letter stating he wanted the play produced, which sets it apart from other unfinished pieces. He was a prolific writer - many of his works are still being discovered by scholars.
Potenzieri insists that the play is worthy of staging and, more importantly, experiencing.
"Coming back from the Fringe Festival in Scotland where I saw a lot of shows," Potenzari says, "I was thinking about the theatrical experiences we have as audience members. Sometimes you go to see theater, and sometimes you participate in a theatrical event. What you remember is what takes you in - grabs you, entertains you, stirs you. That’s what I try to do on stage."
The music in the play, Kaplan adds, is subtle, enhancing the emotional wallop the play imparts.
"Music is played on cue so that the audience may weave the blues with the sounds of a woman sobbing," Kaplan says.
For Potenzari, the truth lies within Williams’ poetic script.
"I always honor the text," he says. "But in directing a play, it is always a discovery, stripping away at the layers, looking at the moments, and then looking deeper. The audience will come away from this play with a sense of those qualities, and Williams’ great use of language and they will get to see what makes good theatre."
"I Never Get Dressed Till After Dark on Sundays," by Tennessee Williams, directed by Nick Potenzieri of the Infinite Theatre, will have its North American premiere at the sixth annual Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theatre Festival at the High School, 12 Winslow St., Provincetown, on September 21, 2012. For ticket information, visit their website