Monday, August 08, 2005

Two Nights of the Iguana

Even amongst abject theater rubes like me, the name of Tennessee Williams looms large in reputation and influence.

The late playwright's distinctive southern-fried meditations on spirituality, sex, and dysfunctionality spawned scores of imitators on stage, on screen, and in print. But Williams' works still provoke, inspire, and draw new generations.

ACT theater in Seattle is currently mounting a new staging of the southern bard's Night of the Iguana (it runs until August 28), and to paraphrase one of its characters, the production is pretty fantastic--to these unjaded eyes, at least.

It's a character study involving T. Lawrence Shannon, a disgraced minister now working as a tour operator. He squires a ladies' school tour group through Mexico, when, besieged by his own neuroses, he swipes the tour bus key and hides in a Mexican hotel run by an old friend, Maxine. Along the way other colorful characters drift to Maxine's hacienda while Shannon gradually unravels.

Williams' well-established issues with sex and spirituality get clear airing here. Shannon openly questions the notion of a rigid Christian doctrine and the petulant, jealous God serving as its figurehead. And sins of the flesh (embodied by Charlotte Goodall, a vivacious underage member of the tour group) attach to the would-be Holy Man like iron shavings to a magnet.

Jon Jory, director of the ACT production, strikes a good balance with the tone here, mining humor without descending to camp theatrics (a real pitfall when interpreting the author's ornate prose) or dampening the philosophical pretzels in the bag. The cast is rock-solid, and the single set evocative and lovely without drawing attention to itself.

Yeah, the symbolism in the text is heavy-handed as hell. In one scene, Shannon gets to play God himself when he saves the title reptile from certain death in a cooking pot, and he spells it out in bald-faced fashion to the audience. But Tennessee Williams' dialogue remains as singular as ever; poetically florid yet brutally honest, mining heightened realism and tarnished romance from some of life's most tedious, inevitable, and sad aspects. That's what great art is all about.

The play proved so satisfying that Rita and I sat down the next night to re-watch John Huston's 1964 filmed adaptation of Night of the Iguana to contrast. And a fascinating comparison it was.

Structurally, the Huston film adds considerable backstory. The first twenty minutes of the movie explicitly depict the establishing events--Shannon's breakdown at the pulpit, his dalliance with Lolita-in-waiting Charlotte, the escalating tension between Shannon and Charlotte's 'den mother' Miss Fellowes--merely implied in the play's opening moments.

The cinematic version also downplays Shannon's very pointed questioning of christian doctrine, grounding his search for God in an almost pro-ecology (as opposed to anti-religious) foundation. The 1941 time period is essentially nullified in the screen translation, and most regrettably, Huston and co-adaptor Anthony Veiller tack on a rather pat happy-ish ending that pales in comparison to the original stage version's powerful finale. But the veteran director of classics like The Maltese Falcon and The Asphalt Jungle maintains the backbone of Williams' work while still making an absorbing movie out of the source material. The movie's shot and helmed in a spare yet evocative style that shouldn't work with the lush and flowery prose, yet does.

Both the film and the ACT production demonstrate the effectiveness of vastly different interpretations of many of the principal roles. Richard Burton's Reverend Shannon radiates more overt masculine smoulder (just ask my wife); he and his sexual desires duke it out in sado-masochistic fashion. John Procaccino, the fine local actor who plays Shannon for ACT, portrays the priest as an unsure little boy with literally no control over--or self-awareness of --his lust. Both of them work splendidly.

Ditto the duelling Mrs. Felloweses. Laura Kenney's onstage Judith Fellowes is an obstinant-yet-somehow-endearing, plump pigeon of a woman, while Burton's nemesis in the film, character actress Grayson Hall, cuts a much more menacing swath with her angular, vulture-like features and barely-suppressed erotic interest in Charlotte (the latter element, ironically enough, is a lot more overt in the film than in the play).

The movie's Charlotte (in the kittenishly hostile form of Sue Lyon) bristles with much more active malevolence than Lada Vishtak's spoiled-but-essentially harmless infatuated schoolgirl. But both film and ACT adaptation keep consistent with the character of Hannah Jelkes, the prim yet non-judgmental spinster who catches Shannon's roving eye and libido. Deborah Kerr (film) and Suzanne Bouchard (stage) both do justice to this repressed-yet-compassionate character, the most enigmatic of the ensemble.

ACT's play gets trumped slightly in the Maxine department by the movie. Patricia Hodges does a solid job in Jory's staging, but her wiry energy obscures the alternately world-weary and playful aspects of the character. Ava Gardner just feels like a smart, no-nonsense dame whose rough edges have been smoothed away by years of life in sunny, sleepy Mexico. She effortlessly (and sexily; just ask my wife's husband) wears the role like a favorite old shirt softened by years of comfortable wear.

My favorite moment in both versions comes when Jonathan Coffin--Hannah Jelkes' 97-year old poet grandfather--completes his final poem, reciting it while Hannah dutifully transcribes. It's a scene of unabashed, luscious old-school theatricality, and it requires a weathered and ready force of nature to sell it.

Venerable old character actor Cyril Delevanti does a bang-up job in the service of John Huston's screen adaptation. But there's something about hearing longtime stage stalwart and Tony nominee Clayton Corzatte deliver Tennessee Williams' monologue in the flesh that tinctures the scene with true magic. I've always loved John Huston's Night of the Iguana, but after seeing this scene played on a stage as God and Tennessee Williams intended, in the end I've got to admit: the play's the thing.


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Eric said...

HI. I am looking for some cultural significance in the symbology used by the Iguana in Mexican Culture.
Any insights?