The latest from the inventive Williams Project and the first of its two “Bar Plays” this summer, Small Craft Warnings centers on adrift characters. But the production winds up feeling adrift instead.
Early this year, The Williams Project — a nomadic Seattle-based company known for bringing theatre out into the community, with plays set on non-traditional stages — announced yet another adventure. It would find or build a bar, and perform two plays — aptly titled “The Bar Plays” — in repertory, on the same stage. Remarkably, they’d use the same cast, performing both plays concurrently. It was an ambitious project.
It was an announcement that appealed to me right away. I love a good bar. In my travels, whether a few hours away, down either coast, or in Middle America, I’ve always looked for the heartbeat of a place in the personalities found its local, no-frills bars (many of which could be referred to properly as “dives”). The egalitarian bar holds a unique place in the American landscape and ethos; and the action (or inaction) there can say a lot about its town.
Director Ryan Guzzo Purcell, also the Artistic Director of The Williams Project, seemed to agree. On the show selection, he explained, “Bars function a lot like theaters. We go to both spaces to hear great stories, to laugh and sometimes cry, and to share an experience, whether with friends or complete strangers. Often, we accidentally expose our vulnerability and desperation. We can’t hide. Both spaces are filled with the complexity, diversity, and range of human experience.”
The first of The Williams Project’s Bar Plays opened last week: Small Craft Warnings, by the company’s namesake Tennessee Williams. The second, The Time of Your Life by William Saroyan, which will open this Friday.
As part of the experience, the company sought to transform the theatre space into a real, working bar. And so, when you enter into the theatre space on the first floor of the historic Washington Hall, there’s some layout to adjust to. There’s the working bar (really, a concession stand with Georgetown Brewing cans and some specialty cocktails) in the rear. The (more genuine bar-looking) staged bar in the front. A few tables marked reserved for actors, which form a part of the dispersed set. And others unmarked, right in the center, at which audience members are free to sit, or head for the more traditional chairs in rows on either wall.
The physical layout itself is a curious start. Wherever you sit, you’ll be staring just as much at each other, on either side of the room and in the center, as at the actors. It’s a clever device, bringing everyone into the same space and sense of place. Up for adventure, my guest and I selected a table to be shared with strangers, right in the thick of it all.
Generally possessing an absence of strong narrative arc, bar plays and their ilk — the intimate, candid, among-friends stories of down-and-out characters — instead rely on a sense of, and connection to, both the personalities and the places they inhabit. When both the characters and sense of place shine through, exemplars of this type — whether set in an actual bar (like these two by Williams and Saroyan, or Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, for example) or another hard-scrabble location (a rundown hotel fallen from its former glory in Lanford Wilson’s Hot L Baltimore, say, or a small town’s old diner in The Spitfire Grille) — make for luscious, personality-rich drama, even in a stripped-down production or on the cold page. They’re characters you can imagine, in places you’ve likely seen.
Unfortunately, that same sense of place and personality doesn’t come through in this production of Small Craft Warnings.
A key problem with this bar play is that it never feels like a bar. It’s bright, lit up like an elementary school hallway, rather than a coastal dive where overloaded regulars come to hash out their personal drama late into the night. It’s quiet, with minimal sound design coming through, even as the jukebox picks up; indeed, the most bar-like noise to come through was the happenstance of a motorcycle firing up in the neighborhood outside. The only clue we’re at the coast is the net and giant stuffed sailfish (which, admittedly, is very cool) mounted behind the bar. The stage area is spacious, probably overly so; it occupies the full large multi-purpose room, and its regulars are frequently in opposite corners of the space, yelling across the room in lieu of standard conversation.
And they’re in continuous motion, never settling down — which, with few exceptions, makes little sense to the story. Why are the patrons roaming and pacing all over the bar? Their lines come across less as conversations and confessions among friends, and more as roving TED Talk orations.
This direction is curious. Perhaps it was intentionally unrealistic, instead meant as a metaphor for the characters’ perpetual restlessness. But intentionally or not, it was distracting, diluting the characters. Their constant state of flight, circling the bar and hollering at each other from afar, made it very difficult to take on any emotional connection with their plights or their relationships with one another and their community inside the bar or beyond.
And from there, it might come as little surprise that although the production features strong actors, its use of them is less than satisfying. Kemiyondo Coutinho as Leona — the lead character as much as there is one in this largely ensemble-driven play — is perhaps the best-cast, turning up the heat on various other barflies as the situation demands (which is often). Leona’s openly philandering, live-in boyfriend Bill, with whom Leona’s relationship on the fritz, is played by Richard Prioleau — who’s a bold, strong actor to watch, but who may have too much confidence for this role, of a man whose only strength seems to come from using women.
Among the (slightly) more peripheral characters: Dedra D. Woods, a most versatile actor, is splendid here as in everything else in which I’ve seen her. (Did you see her own the stage playing a dozen or so disparate characters in Intiman Theatre’s production of Wild Horses last year?) But she’s underutilized here as Steve, who has little depth and is frequently seen scowling from a table. Two gay men (played by Grant Chapman and Lemar Legend) lack the obvious age disparity and power dynamic of the original text, and instead feel merely transient; on stage, they’re also largely marooned at their own far-away table — perhaps intended to evoke the chasm between the other characters, but too literal for my taste. Bar owner Monk (Lee LeBreton) looks brooding and defeated, rather than one in control of his dram shop. And I never could read Violet (played by Madeleine Lambert), the runaround of the place. Is she supposed to be young and ignorant? Older and burnt out? Drug addicted, or just light on brain activity? And what about her unappealing character made a credible threat to anyone’s relationship — or was she just a power play in their eyes, to be passed around? In any case, she’s neglected, worn down, a sad story, but with little else to her.
Most perplexing of all was Doc (played by Max Rosenak), and the relationships of the other characters to him. What made the others so endeared to him that they’d enable his unlicensed practice of medicine and continued gross malfeasance, even as it killed people? Neither this production nor the characters offer any answer.
With these character-driven plays, there must be a good and a bad in everyone, in order to have sympathy for their plights and respect for their loyalties. In these characters, both could be found — and Purcell, the director, seemed to recognize as much. Of the play, he noted that, There but for the grace of God go I, cliche though it may be, spoke to the playwright’s “enormous compassion for the struggle of every human life” displayed in the play. Unfortunately, this production leaves too great a chasm — between the audience and the characters, and between the characters themselves — to produce the desired empathy.
The exception comes through an invented device outside the script, an unexpected gesture which invites the audience to partake in community that night.
And Yet …
The Williams Project productions are always ones I want to like, for two reasons: broadly classified, they are ethics and adventure.
It’d be difficult not to appreciate the relationships The Williams Project has fostered with its theatre communities and the larger community. Its shows attract wide and varying audiences, and they do so by design: shows are brought to non-traditional theatre spaces, sometimes traveling even to various spaces in a single show (as their Blues for Mister Charlie did with different churches). Its performances tend to offer admission on a sliding scale or fully pay-what-you-can basis (as is the case with both of the Bar Plays), which is admirable. It raises funds to make sure the artists involved aren’t the ones paying for the ability to offer accessible ticket prices. It’s a company that looks out for the communities of which it is a part.
And, however well they land in the moment, their shows are memorable. For all the theatre happening in town, I’d be remiss to miss any of their productions — and that’s where the sense of adventure kicks in. Remember when we wandered around in the street with sangria, and watched theatre performed on a roof? Of course! That’s Blood Wedding. Or the time we watched racist vitriol and pastoral drama unfold in an actual church? Yes! That’s Blues for Mister Charlie. The Williams Project, it seems, refuses to do anything by the book.
In Seattle, home to theatre saturation and re-re-replays of virtually everything, adventure is a virtue. The Williams Project has that in spades. And so I’ll keep turning up — and others should too. However well the night’s show goes, you’re likely to be talking about it years later. And really, how often can you say that about anything these days?
Small Craft Warnings runs through 8/25 at Washington Hall in the Central District/First Hill area. Tickets $0-$50 (sliding scale, pay-what-you-can available to all for every show). Tickets available here. For showtimes, visit Calendar page. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gendered and multi-stall; theatre is wheelchair accessible.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.