Stories: Two presentations in the second annual Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis, Bertha in Paradise and Ensemble 2.0, offered different looks into the art and life of the renowned playwright whose formative years were spent in St. Louis.
Bertha in Paradise imagines what may have happened to Bertha, a prostitute on the verge of death in the vignette Hello from Bertha in Williams’ The Rooming House Plays. In Ensemble 2.0, a number of players recite letters written by members of the Williams family in a staged reading produced by Francesca Williams, the playwright’s niece.
Other Info: Building on momentum created with the inaugural Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis in 2016, the second annual event featured 19 distinct elements and 54 performances, including plays, live music, movies, visual arts exhibits, readings, panel discussions, contests, tours and parties.
Bertha in Paradise kicked off festivities on Wednesday, May 4 at the Curtain Call Lounge which adjoins The Fox Theatre with Anita Jackson reprising her role from last year’s performance of Hello from Bertha. This version of Bertha was decidedly more upbeat and robust, as Bertha in Paradise conjectures what became of the character of Bertha from The Rooming House Plays’ vignette.
Jackson was accompanied by the honky-tonk stylings of pianist Charles Creath, with Donna Weinsting repeating her role as the madam Goldie, Joel King as an agreeable stage hand and Maggie Winninger on opening night only as a young associate of Bertha’s. Each of them took turns performing, although Jackson did the lion’s share of the cabaret-style warbling.
The show focused on deliveries of blue and bawdy classics such as I Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl, My Daddy Rocks Me and My Handy Man, each of which Jackson shaped with her signature crooning style, larger than life, eager to please and happy to be pleased as well. While too often repetitive in its execution, the show was managed capably by director David Kaplan, who adhered to the “earthly pleasures” preferred by Bertha in songstress mode.
Weinsting had a grand time asking the ribald question, Anybody Here Want to Try My Cabbage?, and the troupe occasionally joined Jackson for a grinning melody or two. Performed in the intimate Curtain Call Lounge, Bertha in Paradise set the stage for the four primary days of the festival, May 4-7.
On Monday, May 8, several performers gathered on the stage at the .ZACK Incubator for a staged reading of Ensemble 2.0. Produced by writer/editor/artist Francesca Williams, daughter of Williams’ younger brother Dakin, Ensemble 2.0 traces the lives of matriarch Edwina Williams and her three children Rose, Thomas and Walter Dakin from childhood to their deaths.
It offered a sometimes interesting glimpse into the personal lives of the Williams family, although never once mentioning Tom’s homosexuality or his “colorful” life far from his genteel Southern background or Midwestern heartland childhood. The specter of the roustabout Williams’ patriarch, a traveling salesman who abandoned his family but whose influence still remained, loomed over the piece.
Directed by Richard Chapman, the reading seemed to exhibit some friction between players from time to time, or maybe that was just my imagination. Often, too, some performers stumbled over their lines, indicating that perhaps more rehearsal time would have been advantageous both for them and for the final product.
Still, there were memorable performances. Broadway actress Angelica Page, daughter of actor Rip Torn and the late actress Geraldine Page, shaped her presentation of Edwina’s correspondence with the acerbic, starched and eccentric style that recalls Amanda Wingfield from The Glass Menagerie. Her words were clipped, lips pursed and rarely did a smile etch her face.
Bridgette Bassa conveyed the pampered and later delusional life of Rose, who suffered an egregious lobotomy in a disastrous effort to address her increasing psychological instability, while Ben Watkins portrayed the stiff Dakin, who brought his own sometimes bizarre behavior to the family but also kept it afloat with his legal background and mind for business.
Paul Cereghino’s depiction of Thomas Lanier “Tennessee” Williams was all over the board, ranging from the attentive missives sent by the successful yet dutiful son and brother to his exasperation with his brother’s folly-filled forays into politics and his honest, loving concern for his troubled sister. Kari Ely portrayed Williams’ long-time agent Audrey Wood, the lone non-relative at the podium.
While interesting in revealing aspects of the Williams’ family’s personal background, Ensemble 2.0 was by its very nature too often static and uninvolving. Still, it served as an informative addition to the festival, and references to sites and buildings known to St. Louisans reaffirmed what a local treasure Williams’ legacy remains to this day.
Plays: Bertha in Paradise, Ensemble 2.0
Company: Second Annual Tennessee Williams Festival
Venue: Curtain Call Lounge, .ZACK Incubator
Dates: Runs concluded
Photos courtesy of Ride Hamilton and ProPhotoSTL