The Guthries production of Tennessee Williams The Night of the Iguana is an exhilarating disappointment, or a disappointing exhilaration, depending on how you look at it. Or maybe its just an excellent workout piece, for the company to stretch its aesthetic limbs.
The impressive set is so all-inclusive that it seems air-lifted from the Mexican jungle just for this piece, down to a shower of water at the end of the first act. And maybe thats the issue, this is a production that critics like to call "faithful". No risk taking here; in the tradition of a Guthrie "standard", they insure continuing fiscal support by presenting the classics in classic style, without particular innovation or fresh insight. This makes for good student field-trip fodder, but a less than satisfying theatrical experience.
Elle: Rox, I thought you said David was funny This is sounding kind of like me, like something Id say, but much more eloquently.
Rox: Give him time, Elle, hes not a Jew. He needs to warm up to our usual level of sarcasm.
The direction seems to ask the actors to deliver their lines at an almost identical volume; the first thirty minutes of the piece involve shouting at each other and at an off-stage tour bus, an experience that becomes an ordeal when the dynamics between the actors seems doomed not to rise above the one-level experienced by lines on a printed page. Only until the second act do the characters seem to evolve both beyond the expositional posturing of the first act and move towards living lives we can observe with interest, rather than take notes on for later reference.
Elle: Well thats a little better.
Not to belittle the inestimable Mr. Williams, but he delivers his message both obliquely and directly, spending an inordinate amount of time creating the mood, until the mood is one of boredom, and then dealing out the platitudes and nonsequitors like an old pit boss in Reno.
Elle: Rox, were gonna lose our friggin jobs. Melodie's going to hate us.
Rox: I kind of like the card shark metaphor.
Elle: And what does that have to do with the price of beans in July?
Rox: All right. I'll take it from here. Thanks David. You can go now.
David: I'm not finished. I haven't mentioned the long scenes between Hank and Hannah. Or the long scenes between Hank and Maxine. Wasn't there also a long scene between Maxine and Hannah?
Rox: By the way, David, why does your mom call me Maxine?
Rox: Moving right along.
David is right. The scenes were long and boring. Usually I am in favor of drawn out scenes where people talk about their woes, but there was something missing here. My best (and typically default) guess is that it's because there wasn't a modern interpretation of these (albeim timeless and universal) issues, which translates as "been there done that". Ultimately, this limits the sense of connection among characters, creating more of a series of monologues (accompanied by starry eyed gazes out into the audience) instead of dialogue exchange.
Still, what I would have changed exactly is hard to say. Perhaps instead of focusing on Maxine (Patricia Hodges) and retired Rev Lawrence (Armand Schultz) being a couple of drinking buddies who cannot let go of the past, we could see them diss the melodrama and ham it up with total apathy. Or instead of watching tortured bore, Hannah (Kate Forbes) tag along side her oh so stereotypical wise old poet grandfather Nonno (Joel Friedman), it would be refreshing to see him depicted as a teenager or a dog, something, anything, to give us something other to invest in than the wise old man archetype. He was strong, but saturated in cliché. But really, wouldn't it be more exciting to see poor traumatized Hannah, being that she was on the verge of a breakdown, embody that psychosis by experiencing her grandfather as a golden retriever? Of course I'd be happy if the whole play took place with everyone off stage except for Pancho (Carlo Alban) and Pedro (Carlos Alberto Valencia)the accurately portrayed Mexican flojos who spend most of the play lazing around the stage.
For that matter (and by far the best part of the show), same goes for the family of German tourists. Wolfgang (Zach Curtis) and his fat and happy family wonderfully capture the blind baffoonery seen in most tourists outside of their own living rooms. I was tempted to follow them off stage after each brief appearance because they appeared to be the only ones in the whole theatre having any fun.
The other thing that made this show unbearable for me was how self-conscious I felt in the audience. Now, I don't know if this is even relevant, but it's true (and I will keep it short). However, whenever I see shows at The Guthrie I can't help but notice the people sharing the audience with me, particularly the ones down close to the stage. I often wonder how they can stand the possibility that they might be caught in a pool of light during an inopportune moment like a nap or digging in their ear. But usually this anxiety dissipates once the show begins because I am so involved in the events on stage. But this time, I was not only more interested in watching the guy across from me fiddle with his tie, but I was mortified that people from the tippy top of the highest row would notice me continuously dig through my purse for treats and go through an entire pack of gum.
I guess the bigger point is that anything that fails to allow me to take a break from myself for a while is not working for me when it comes to entertainment. Usually that "escape" we refer to is so great because for the first time all day we don't have to worry if we have something on our face that shouldn't be there. Especially when dealing with those shady humans created by Tennessee Williams.
David: Elle, we're both ruuully sorry we didn't like this more...rully.
Elle: Go back to Reno, Mr. Metaphor.
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