Friday, November 1, 2019

Baby Doll

Photo by Prudence Upton

Ensemble Theatre presents, BABY DOLL, by Tennessee Williams, Adapted by Pierre Laville and Emily Mann, at the Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli. 18th October - 16th November.

BABY DOLL, began its life as a film in 1956, written by Tennessee Williams. It was Directed by Elia Kazan as 'a black comedy'. It was shaped from two one act stage plays by Williams: 27 WAGONS FULL OF COTTON (1945) and THE LONG STAY CUT SHORT or THE UNSATISFACTORY SUPPER (1946). Tennessee Williams adapted the screenplay as a play, himself, under the title TIGER TALE in the 1970's, but this work at the Ensemble Theatre has been made by Pierre Laville and Emily Mann - long time collaborators at the McCarter Theater Center in Princeton, New Jersey.

The film was nominated for 5 Golden Globes, 4 Academy Awards and 4 BAFTAS. From my teenage memory (in the 60's) the lasting, arresting impression of the film is the sensuality, sexuality of life below the Mason Dixon Line in the American state of Mississippi in the emerging but passionately resisting steamy culture of the 1950's. One tastes this flavour again in the adaptation of most other Tennessee Williams' plays for film - the raw sexual tension between a man and a woman - A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951), CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (1958), and later in other's films such as IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967), MISSISSIPPI BURNING (1988). The sexual undertow of a peculiar world sparking into inevitable violence and tragedy.

BABY DOLL recounts the story of Archie Lee Meighan (Jamie Oxenbould), an ageing owner of a similarly ageing cotton gin (mill), who has struck a bargain with a dying father that he could marry his daughter,'Baby Doll' (Kate Cheel), if he promised not to consummate their marriage until she reached the age of 20. Almost twice her age Archie has been stretched in the honouring of that promise, particularly as 'Baby Doll' is both ambiguously defensive and enticing, Lolita-like - often employing deliberate flirtation in their 'heated' relationship which has become 'hotter' of late as the 20th birthday is only days away.

Besides the heat of this sexual tension, Archie's business is under threat from an up-to-date corporate-owned cotton mill nearby. He simply solves this problem by striking out, in the cloak of night, with an act of arson destroying his rival. The manager of the burnt out mill, a young stud of a man, Silva Vaccaro (Socratis Otto) turns up at Archie's mill, next day with 27 wagons full of cotton that he needs milling, urgently. Archie may have won out with his business interests. But, on the other hand, inevitably, Silva and 'Baby Doll' scent each other out and Archie's other world erupts into high tension - the core of the action of the play, on the stage.

The film was attacked by the moral right of the period with, particularly, the Catholic church regarding the film as "greviously offensive to Christian and traditional standards of morality and decency" and had the film "Condemned". Some respected critics also joined tho protest declaring the film 'as a lurid tale of a virgin child bride, her sexually frustrated husband, and her smarmy lover." TIME magazine called it "possibly the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited". This production at the Ensemble Theatre will have no such moral protest to deal with - it is bombastically, intellectually too tame.

Director of this production, Shaun Rennie, says in the program notes:
Re-examining BABY DOLL through a contemporary theatrical lens has allowed us to explore the continually evolving and shifting beliefs regarding a woman's right to autonomy and control over her sexuality. Together we've interrogated the complex and nuanced conversation surrounding Affirmative Consent, the many roles women are forced to 'perform' in order to manoeuvre their way through an unbalanced system where the male gaze is omnipresent, and to question the permanence and depth of exciting social changes that have been made slowly and progressively towards righting that imbalance.
That does seem to be an exciting proposition for the artistic collaborators of this production to have had during their rehearsal period, but to be honest, at our entry point, as an audience to the result of such cogitation, it does not seem to have affected, influenced, much, the storytelling in this production of this 63 year old provocation embedded in the mores of its period. Except as a possible encouragement for, as Mr Rennie suggests, a personal 'further interrogation' of the community values of our contemporary sexual politics. The play as written is for its time, the social and political atmosphere of the 1950'-'60's' at the centre of its interest, and to attempt to gainsay it into the contemporary debates about the agency of female sexuality etc, without a dramatic re-writing adjustment seems to be a far-fetched aspiration. The context is of great importance.

The film interpretation is a highly emotionally charged experience that resonates the skill of its actors: Carol Baker, Karl Malden and Eli Wallach, Directed by Elia Kazan, and all four of these artists are steeped in the "Method" technique devised by Lee Strasberg that had such a profound affect on the major performing artists of this cinematic and theatrical period - a created reality of heightened intensity that was based on a known truth played, usually, in a heightened state of expression. It always and still does create a physical, visceral response to the sensitive in the theatre or cinema - it is of a genre style of deliberate sexual disturbance.

This technique of 'playing' was served, in part, by the demands of the writers of the period of which Tennessee Williams was a strong advocate (it is, also, present in the works of playwrights William Inge, Arthur Miller).

As the writer Anton Chekov, served the 'revolutionary' style of acting that was the evolving technique of naturalism led by Constantin Stanislavsky who collaborated with Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, his co-Artistic director of the Moscow Arts Theatre, that changed the style of approach to acting at the turn of the twentieth century, Tennessee Williams was the principal inspiration for the "Method' approach. BABY DOLL serves violently the Strasberg 'Method' of the mid-twentieth century which was an exploration and exaggeration of the traditions of his forebears, it situated at the core-heart of the Williams' plays and screenplays. It is what gave these texts the vivacity and conviction that was the underlining support for the period's work as a shock of the new.

It was this artistic element that, for me, thwarted my marrying with this Ensemble production, as this company of actors were not engaged intimately with the Method and failed to serve the thrust of the energy of the Tennessee Williams writing style.

The performance style of this company was signalled by the overwrought and over loud Sound Composition (Nate Edmondson) as an overture to the beginning of the play which seemed to encourage a 'bellowing' noise pattern of the text, from all the actors, particularly, from Mr Oxenbould, that seemed to preclude any real communication to the other actors for cause to affect the development of each character's argument of objective. Each actor/character seemed to be locked into a self-contained bubble of intellectualisation - a style that was more analytical - than of an expression of a primary subjective emotional source of energy.

(The loud sound volume of this production both electronic and human reminded me of a recent interview with the Musical Theatre star, Patti Lupone, who gave an evaluation of the contemporary Broadway Musical - 'they hurt my ears' was her reply, and that the electronic sound manipulation prevented any real ability for the audience and singer/actor to achieve any real nuance of private intimacy exchange for the character development and narrative journey).

The sensual sexuality and ambiguous preening of the Baby Doll character so powerfully evident in the film, and definitely the cause of much of the political scandal that erupted about this work as film, was absent in the work of Ms Cheel - besides the fact she did not appear to be the self-described 19 year old teenager struggling with the power of her growing sexual radiance, but rather presenting a much older woman reasoning her evaluation of how best to 'win' in the situation she has found herself placed in by Archie, her much older husband, and the arrival of the young stud called Silva. Without that vividness of the burgeoning sexuality of this "virgin child bride" the play has hardly a solid lubrication to deliver what Tennessee Williams has written for provocation in 1956. The intellectual cogitations about this work in 2019 are not part of the Williams' interest.

This production of BABY DOLL was a huge disappointment. The best of the work was given by Maggie Dence as the disappointed-with-life old lady of the house, Aunt Rose Comfort, who mostly, appears to ignore what is going on about her.

The Set Design by Anna Tregloan has been prescribed as a whole contribution to the atmosphere of the Mississippi milieu as it shares a repertory need with another play that uses the same space in a scheduled pattern of performances. Verity Hampson with her Lighting Design does as well as she can to support an atmosphere to create the theatre vision of a steamy sweaty environment that goes beyond naturalistism as best she can.

This is a one act play that in its content provocation may be better served by viewing the film.

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