It took a decade of Tennessee Williams' later life to complete The Two Character Play, a stylistic departure into experimental theater that New York Times critic Ben Brantley warned could be a "a goulash of avant-garde leftovers" if not performed by the right players. Fortunately for Lexington's Balagula Theatre, actors Ryan Case and Rachel Rogers are the right players.
On Monday night, during the second performance of the production, Case and Rogers adeptly translated what is considered to be Williams' most personal, and most complicated, work.
The Two Character Play depicts a pair of sibling actors who use the stage as a kind of parallel alternate reality to enact the familial dramas between brother and sister as well as the internal conflicts within each character. In this case, the siblings' inner and outer lives are fatefully intertwined in a frightening and fascinating codependency that is revealed in the production's play-within-a-play construct.
What the play lacks in terms of accessibility — there is no concrete plot or even a concrete reality — are countered by a raw, visceral and poetic dissection of the internal realities of characters who are permanently emotionally wounded and struggling to survive. Because their suffering stems from the same tragedy — the murder-suicide of their mother and father — they can only find comfort in each other. Yet that bond tethers them even more tightly to their tragic past and drives them deeper into a harrowingly dark isolation.
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Case and Rogers are a formidable duo as Felice and Clare, their characters' names in the play-within-a-play as well as their "real" names as actors (there are technically four characters in The Two Character Play). They are particularly engrossing in scenes when the actor characters improvise in the play-within-a-play, written by Felice and heavily cut and amended on the spot by sister Clare. Each time she bangs a toy piano to the side of the stage, she is cueing Felice to an impromptu change in the story. Observing the acts that trigger Clare's sudden script changes and then watching Case's reaction and attempt to recover the integrity and flow of the fictional production are some of the play's most revelatory moments.
Ironically, the siblings' relationship is most authentic when they are in the deepest state of shared imagination, an important concept that Rogers and Case convey with piercing honesty. Only in the safety of their imagination — which is not really that safe at all but a terrifying, claustrophobic landscape dotted by mental illnesses and conflicting allegiances — can the characters find their true ending. But that, too, is not so much an ending as an embrace or at least acceptance of their shared dysfunction and dependency.
Perhaps what is most enjoyable about Rogers' and Case' ensemble performance is the myriad seemingly disparate emotions that exist at once. For instance, they truly hate and love each other in equal measure, and not in a love-hate way with mutual peaks of hot and cold, but more like dance partners: both backward and forward steps are necessary at the same time, each always tending to the balance.
Director Natasha Williams focused on Williams' friendship with Lexington-based visual artist Henry Faulkner as part of her directorial vision, letting Faulkner's frequent color schemes spill over into Tom Willis' scenic and lighting design and Joyce Anderson's costumes.
What The Two Character Play is not is A Streetcar Named Desire. There are layered echoes of Tennessee Williams' poetic language, there are themes of confinement and freedom, of alcoholism, mental health and the theater's place in helping or hindering humanity, but it is a striking departure from his early work. It still reflects Williams' world-view but it's like a fractured mirror that has been glued back together with the pieces out of order. We still see the playwright's face in it, but it is fragmented, cracked and irreparable, like its characters.
IF YOU GO
'The Two-Character Play'
What: Balagula Theatre's production of Tennessee Williams' play.
When: 8 p.m. Nov. 5-6, 10-13
Where: Natasha's Bistro & Bar, 112 Esplanade
Tickets: $20, $15 students. Available at 1-888-927-4850 or Balagula.com.