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Creating New Truths Out of Old Lies

The truth is the Dresser had no idea what to expect from a Mendacity Festival. Mendacity: the tendency to be untruthful, a falsehood, a lie. Associated with mendacity are: crying wolf, snow jobs, and window dressing.


On December 13 and 15, 2010, in the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, the first cohort (eight students working as a group) of a Master of Fine Arts in Performance from the University of Maryland's School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies presented an evening of scenes from three Tennessee Williams plays followed by solo performances created in response to the Tennessee Williams character played. The solo performances also "explored" for each performer:

• What are the costs of deception?
• Was there a time in your life and your Williams character's life that you (or your character) needed to lie or create your (his/her) own truth to survive?
• What was the need to lie?
• What needed to be hidden?

Maggie-BrickSM.jpgThe Williams' Scenes opened with two scenes from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Anu Yadav as Maggie and Armando Batista as Brick plunged the audience into the emotionally fraught exchange between a wife struggling to hold her marriage together and her husband who is coldly indifferent to her plea. While Yadav delivered most of the lines, it was the body language of the two actors that supercharged this scene and set up the next scene where Brick's father Big Daddy pays Brick a visit to see what's wrong with him and his marriage.

The second Williams Scene was played by Nick Horan as Brick and Teresa Ann Virginia Bayer as an oddly memorable Big Daddy. In this casting arrangement, Bayer stole the focus as a diminutive woman playing a man whose nickname indicates his large size and stature. BigDaddySM.jpgThe Dresser wonders now if Horan could have done anything to equalize the playing field beyond camping up his performance. Maybe that is precisely what was needed since the play in its entirety indicates that Brick is cold toward Maggie because his sexual interest has always been in his now deceased friend Skipper, the same man who Maggie confronted regarding his too-close friendship with her husband and who attempts to prove Maggie wrong by making love to her.

The third Williams Scene pits the gentile but down-on-her-luck Blanche (played by Caroline Clay) in Streetcar Named Desire against the bully with no manners or boundaries Stanley (Rob Jansen). Clay did a good job making the audience understand Maggie's need to live in a world where truth is relative versus the raw reality of her brother-in-law Stanley. Clay and Jansen delivered solid performances.Blanche-Stanley.jpg

By comparison to the first three scenes, the last scene drawn from The Glass Menagerie seemed a little long and relatively tame. Claudia Rosales as Laura emerged unexpectedly in the opening of this scene from underneath a blanket thrown across a living room settee. It was a very charming moment and set up an expectation for something more profound than what was delivered. What happens in this scene is that Laura, a child-like woman who collects glass figurines, is courted by Jim (played by Dave Demke) a friend of Laura's brother. This is the last scene of William's play. Unlike Streetcar and Cat, no volcanic emotions erupt. GlassMenagerieSM.jpgIn Menagerie, the dramatic tension builds throughout the play and therefore this scene requires an acting intensity that comes from an accrual of moves built over the duration of the play--a mighty tall order for even the most experienced actors. Perhaps this scene should have been the first one presented in the Williams Scenes to avoid comparison with the more heavy hitting scenes.

The mendacity inventory from the William Scenes shakes out to snow jobs with a dash of window dressing. Brick is living a lie being married to Maggie but he hasn't come to terms with loving a man either. Big Daddy is caught in a lie about his health. The family knows he is dying but he thinks otherwise based on what his doctor said. Blanche chooses to think she is refined when the reality is that she cannot afford to live according to the high financial and moral standards she talks about. Laura has never grown up and lives in the past while Jim initially presents himself as a "gentleman caller" when the reality is he is involved with another woman.


Caliban.jpgWithin a timeframe of thirty minutes using four different staging areas inside and outside the Morris & Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation Theatre, the eight cohorts (cohort is a popular label used in the educational field which is now focused on collaborative projects) presented eight solo performances supported by non-performing members of the cohort who served as stagehands and played to a standing audience who moved with each performance to a new staging area. As a group, the presentations were uniquely memorable creating an array of images: Dave Demke's barker in black cape and red clown nose ("Dream Death"), Anu Yadav's emotional rollercoaster shadow show (Breathing Room), Claudia Rosales through the looking glass abused girl ("Rhapsody in Bruise"), Rob Jansen's head-dunking barrel boy ("Broken World"), Teresa Ann Virginia Bayer's audience interactive word game with broken eggs ("auyà"), Armando Batista's Caliban-like shadow show ("Liar"), Caroline Clay's lecture on the first black cast to play Cat on the Hot Tin Roof, and Nick Horan's monster in ruby slippers ("Getting Dressed").

LookingGlass.jpgThe Dresser has no idea what auyà means or how Bayer's performance piece connected to Big Daddy. Still the piece was engaging and sticks in memory. Most likely the Dresser's dreams will be visited repeatedly by Rosales "Rhapsody in Bruise" as the beaten-up girl scales her mirror and Horan's "Getting Dressed" as a young man slathers himself with suffocating putty. In "Getting Dressed," Horan's performance was preceded by a 1950s film warning young men about the dangers of accepting rides from strangers who might take advantage of them sexually. After the film ended, Horan climbed on his stage with a box. He sat down and took from the box a pair of high heel shoes much like the ones Dorothy wears in the film The Wizard of Oz. After he puts these glittering shoes on, he proceeded to cover himself with putty, particularly his head, turning himself into a monster.GettingDressedSM.jpg

What the entire set of performances (the Williams Scenes and the Mendacity Solo Pieces) did for the Dresser was make her want to see these actors again. The Dresser thinks it is unusual to walk away from a student production with clear memory of each individual. While it is true that some of these students have come to the University of Maryland MFA program with substantial resumes, something about seeing them through this lens of focused subject matter, the Tennessee Williams plays, and the risks they were each taking in their solo performances worked beyond the rubric of theater magic. One has to think that the leading teacher for this festival, Mitchell Hébert, who is a long time performing member of Washington, DC's Woolly Mammoth Theatre, is someone to pay close attention to.

Poet Catie Rosemurgy in her new book The Stranger Manual presents a recurring character named Miss Peach, who is a poster girl, in The Dresser's mind, for mendacity. Like the Mendacity Solo Scenes by the first cohort of Maryland's new MFA program, Miss Peach's life is a study of emotional extremes. In "Summary, with Winter Berries," we know Miss Peach is not Julia Roberts but just the window dressing that launches this bruised woman into the world each day.


Miss Peach is Julia Roberts.
Miss Peach is the act of getting out of bed in the morning.

Miss Peach gets stuck with pins.
Miss Peach: head of an eagle.

Miss Peach is unclearly packaged.
Miss Peach is the glue we used as toothpaste.

Miss Peach is the conflict we have in winter
holding plump, white berries.

Miss Peach's tiny, smashed face is so dear.
Miss Peach lives in the woods and embodies betrayal.

by Catie Rosemurgy
from The Stranger Manual

Copyright © 2010 Catie Rosemurgy

Photos: Chelsie Lloyd


Comments (2)

Barbara Goldberg:

Interesting to imagine Big Daddy as a short woman. In fact, the whole
evening sounds like something fresh and newly imagined.

Thanks, Karren--I especially enjoyed this posting.

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