Two distinctly American voices are the inspiration for the June lineup of plays in the ongoing festival of English-language theater known as "Printemps '99" at the Petit Hébertot. These are Tennessee Williams' "Out Cry," also known as "The Two-Character Play," and an original monologue on the spiritual journey of Emily Dickinson, "The Supposed Person: Voice of War." Both shows explore the struggles of writers at odds with society and both feature notable acting and directing. "Out Cry" spotlights the talents of two accomplished film and TV actors, the husband and wife team of Robert Symonds (most recently in Mike Nichol's film "Primary Colors") and Priscilla Pointer, (best-known as Rebecca Wentworth in "Dallas"). "The Supposed Person," written and performed by Italian author and actress Francesca Bartellini, is directed by Christina Paulhofer, who next fall takes over the experimental theater lab of Berlin's Deutsches Theater.
"Out Cry" has been called one of Williams' most autobiographical plays, which is saying a lot considering that his dysfunctional family life is the basis for his entire work and the obvious subject of his more famous "The Glass Ménagerie." Aging actors Clare and Felice (who are also sister and brother) discover they have been abandoned by their company after a long and commercially bankrupt tour, just before the curtain is about to go up on them in an unfamiliar town. Penniless, homeless and clinging to a fantasy of normalcy buoyed up by anti-depressants and alcohol, they retreat into the world of their own autobiographical drama, "The Two-Character Play," acting out their fears in the hope that one of them will finally be able to put them both out of their suffering. The themes of madness and death and the chemically dependent escapism that haunted Williams' life and work take the stage both literally and figuratively in "Out Cry" as an explanation for the author's creative decline in the later years of his life and for his inability, much as he tried, to write his way out of his own wretched existence.
In Pointer and Symonds, this production has the dignified actors d'un certain âge that previous performances of "Out Cry" have lacked, while, in this play, Pointer and Symonds have found a vehicle for looking back on their own careers, which stretch over more than 40 years and a collected total of 64 films and a dozen TV series. Their conclusion: "We have been tremendously lucky," they said in an interview. "We grew up in the theater at a time when repertory companies were being developed throughout America [and] where we had the opportunity to play the classics as well as presenting American premieres of Brecht, Pinter, Duerrenmatt and Beckett."
When local company Dear Conjunction invited them to participate in its season, Pointer and Symonds, who had previously read with the troupe, enthusiastically accepted. In fact, their undertaking of "Out Cry," written in 1966 but frequently revised by the author over the ensuing nine years, is something of a labor of love: the couple studied all six extant versions of the play and delved into Williams' biographies, private correspondence and unpublished notes on an early production in order to discover, they said, "the play that the author had hoped to complete." Pointer and Symonds explained, "It speaks of his beloved sister [committed to an asylum in 1937] and of his own terror of madness, of failure and of courage. The play becomes more poignant and closer to the feelings of the author at the end of his life."
The playwright would be pleased: this "Out Cry" underscores what he once called "gallantry in the face of defeat" and is perhaps an even kinder reading of Williams' life than even he could have hoped for.
Francesca Bartellini has taken an equally personal approach to the life and letters of the 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson in "The Supposed Person: Voice of War." According to Bartellini, Dickinson had "a miracle mind" capable of understanding "the perfection of reality in a scientific sense while feeling it too." She wants people to consider Dickinson as she does, as an angry, misunderstood poet, a "pagan" who rejected the monotheistic religion of her Puritan forefathers, and something of a medium. "I have a feeling that she talks the language of the next century in her understanding of nature," Bartellini reflected in an interview. The reclusive poet was a kind of "pre-hippie," she insisted, who "understood something that's coming back today as ecology" but is really about "understanding a balance between man and nature."
Bartellini created her monologue from Dickinson's countless letters to family, friends and the literary critic T. W. Higginson, who failed to see Dickinson's brilliance and stymied her efforts to be published. On stage, the poet addresses these unseen interlocutors while waiting for an unnamed visitor (not surprisingly, he turns out to be God). Bartellini has divided the piece into eight "stanzas," because in Italian, she said, "stanza" means a room as well as a fixed number of verses. Consequently, the term expresses a "sense of rest, a sense of completeness," she explained, that was obviously essential to Dickinson, who, from the age of about 30, began to keep almost exclusively to her bedroom. Hence, Dickinson is the "supposed person" whom no one sees but who expresses herself through letters and poetry.
However, it is what Bartellini understands as Dickinson's "declaration of war" on monotheism that explains the play's subtitle. She believes Dickinson was attracted to a spiritual complicity in nature that she found wanting in the Protestant work ethic which dominated her upbringing as the daughter of a respected lawyer and one-time senator in Amherst, Massachusetts. It is a "declaration" that Bartellini wishes to repeat by staging "The Supposed Person." She explained, "There is a new spiritual need. We have to change our way of thinking. The material relationship we have with things is wrong. It's too aggressive. At the same time I think the New Age machine made banal what artists have always felt as a need. Emily's voice of war is against monotheism and mine is maybe against the manipulation of spirituality."
"The Supposed Person" is Bartellini's third play, after "Prostitutki" (off-off Broadway, 1993) and "Women's Knots" (Chicago's Organic Theater, 1990). Thirty-year old, Romanian-born Christina Paulhofer, who is being hailed in Germany as that country's rising new talent, directs.
"Printemps '99" also includes a program of contemporary French theater which this month features actor Emmanuel Depoix's critically acclaimed monologue "Baudelaire" on the moody and rebellious 19th century French poet. Created in 1984 from selections from "Les Fleurs du mal" and "Les Petits poèmes en prose," this riveting piece has played over 800 shows in France and Canada, carried by the stage presence of Depoix who doesn't play Baudelaire so much as he channels the poet's spirit.
"Out Cry," June 2-15 (no performance June 8), 7pm; "The Supposed Person," June 17-28, 7pm; "Baudelaire," June 9-21, 9pm, Petit Hébertot, 78bis, bd des Batignolles, 17e, M? Rome/Villiers, tel: 01.44.70.06.69, 50F.
On Stage Theatre Company presents a double bill of English-language comedy at the Théâtre de Nesle this month. Leading off is the premiere of "Clinkers," written by Swiss playwright Marcel Wegner (author of last season's two-hander "Lunchbreak"). Four strangers meet in a kind of waiting room in the afterlife to question the nature of death: Is it the end? Is there a heaven and a hell? What does a soul look like? Is there a judgment? For director Rona Waddington, while Wegner presents many options in response to these and other mysteries, he arrives at the conclusion that "you have to face yourself: you are the judge. You get what you believe you deserve and need." With Stephen Croce, Bill Dunn, Christine Flowers and Thomas M. Pollard. "Clinkers" is followed by David Mamet's first critical success "Sexual Perversity in Chicago" (1974), which chronicles the breakdown of a hopeful relationship between two lovers, due to the misogyny and cynicism of their best friends. Directed by Nicholas Calderbank. With Carly Abramowitz, Chris Goodman, John Paval and Alexa Rutherford.
"Clinkers," til June 27, Tue-Sat, 7:15pm; "Sexual Perversity in Chicago," til July 31, Tue-Sat,. 9pm; Théâtre de Nesle, 8, rue de Nesle, 6e, M?Odéon/Pont Neuf, tel: 01.46.34.61.04, 90F/70F.