As a working musical theatre writer who has—not with any deliberate trajectory, but just because that’s how it has always worked out—toiled almost exclusively in the vineyards of adaptation, I have discovered a principle that has held true for every piece I’ve ever worked on, save one. It’s much more important to adapt the sensibility of a piece than the letter of its storytelling structure. The illusion of being faithful (and it is always, only an illusion) lies with how much you channel the impression left by the original source material upon its readers or viewers. By channel I don’t necessarily mean imitate, replicate or emulate; but rather give the audience who enter as fans of the original something that satisfies their expectations, even if it surprises them too; and something that makes equally, if differently, satisfied newbies, who may be inspired to sample the original source material for themselves, also sense a real connection.
The irony is, there’s no principle to how this gets done. Adaptation always gets filtered through your own sensibility, because the only reason to adapt something is because it resonates with your own sensibility and connects with something you want to say, which may not be exactly what the original means to say; in fact, it can be quite different.
Which brings me to Desire at 59E59, from The Acting Company, a collection of six one-act plays based on short stories of Tennessee Williams (he wrote them from the ‘40s through the ‘80s). Under the direction of Michael Wilson, nine actors are the messengers for six playwrights having their way with the source material and the results are as diverse as the by-lined authors.
Beth Henley’s The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin takes a story about a teenage love triangle that is never requited and barely articulated, and unlocks it from (while mildly retaining) its prose POV (that of a younger brother [Mickey Theis] observing his older pianist-sister [Juliet Brett], rehearsing with a young male violinist [Brian Cross] who fascinates them both). Elizabeth Egloff’s Tent Worms takes a tone poem about a marriage (Liv Rooth , Derek Smith) falling apart due to a husband’s encroaching mental illness and expands William’s quiet internal drama into a full-out portrait of delusional obsession run rampant. In You Lied to Me About Centralia, John Guare uses “Portrait of a Girl in Glass”—the story upon which Williams based The Glass Menagerie, which fairly closely resembles the play, albeit in miniature—as only an inspiration, giving him license to explore the Gentleman Caller (Theis) and his (previously) offstage Fiancé (Megan Bartle), after he returns from dinner at the Wingfields. Desire Quenched by Touch, in print (as “Desire and the Black Masseur”) a haunting tale about a consensual and increasingly sado-masochistic relationship between a white Southern customer (John Skelley) seeking pain and the black masseur (Yaegel T. Welch) only too willing to oblige, is transformed by Marcus Gardley from a “simple” telling of an insidious Southern Gothic story of twisted passion meeting quiet rage, to a story with a flashback framework involving a police detective (Smith) and extra touches that could have it function as a teleplay for Tales of the Unexpected, Tales from the Darkside or maybe even the ‘80s incarnation of The Twilight Zone. In Oriflamme, David Grimm uses a short story of two character sketches as an excuse to channel Blanche DuBois (Rooth) into a character with another name and have her instigate a park bench encounter with a random stranger (Smith) who is only as gracious as the libido she inflames allows him to be. And finally The Field of Blue Children, by Rebecca Gilman is, like the opening play, a more explicitly dramatized iteration of a story which, on the page, is more implicit, about romance breaking class barriers.
As you might imagine, the anthology is a mixed bag; director Michael Wilson’s sense of behavioral verisimilitude is not uniformly easy in all of the styles required, and likewise, not every actor is suited to each of his roles uniformly (with the exceptions of Liv Rooth and Derek Smith, who I think emerge as the evening’s stars)—but this is to be expected, especially with six one act plays to present; and the built-in challenge, as you might also imagine, is to revel in the clear victories and manage the best you can with the compromises; and on that level, all; hands score pretty high.
For the curious, I, as a viewer, fell into the camp of newbies who decide to investigate the source. I did not know the Williams short stories earlier. But I was inspired to check ‘em out off the notion, which proved correct, that whatever extra work and added agendas were being fulfilled by adaptation, it was all following a path that Williams had intended to carve; and that he might well (and I think would) have been very pleased to see what his descendants have wrought.
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