Review: The Gentleman Caller (Zadkiel Productions)

The Gentleman Caller is the second play of the season at The University of Toronto’s Hart House Theatre. It is a fictional account of the private life of famed playwright Tennessee Williams.

I openly and freely admit that I am not very familiar with Williams’ work. I was literally in the dark while waiting for the TTC on the way to the play. Sadly, a streetcar was not included as part of my journey.

I was really looking forward to The Gentleman Caller, even before the weather and music put me in the proper mood.

My music for the ride was The Clash’s album Combat Rock. Allen Ginsberg, an extremely popular Beatnik poet, contributes vocals on one track on the album. This was the last “real” record by an important rock band. They disbanded shortly thereafter due to drug abuse and personal problems. This is the perfect “opening act” for The Gentleman Caller.

Playwrights James Cunningham and Martin Hunter certainly know a thing or two about Tennessee Williams. Cunningham wrote an M.A. thesis on the works of Williams. Hunter saw the original production of A Streetcar Named Desire in New York when he was twelve.

Hart House Theatre is a great venue. Upon entering, one is treated to a magnificent set. It really owes something to big rock and roll shows. It is other-worldly and conjures up surreal images of ghosts. The Williams line “the dead came down with the rain” is brought to life by the creative set.

The electronic projections behind the shear drapes/curtains are very effective at times. The revisiting of one’s ghosts and youth, and recurring themes are really conveyed well.

Instead of ghosts or angels, the subject matter of The Gentleman Caller is demons. The demons are the usual ones; sexual addiction, insanity and substance abuse.

Williams is played by Nigel Bennet. He does a good job of portraying sick and depraved Williams. He seems genuinely vulnerable at times and plays a believable addict. He brings a great deal of believable physicality to the character. At times Bennett is great and conjures up ghosts with his acting, as he reminds me of some addict friends.

Harrison Thomas plays “The Hustler”, a young prostitute who breaks into Williams’ house and “makes it worth his while”. “The Hustler” turns out to be an amalgamation of the drug-addled lovers that Williams enjoyed during most of the 20th century. This is a ghost that often returns to haunt Williams. It is also a ghost that never really leaves his bed/side.

Carmen Grant plays Williams’ sister, Rose. Tragically, Rose endured a lobotomy and was institutionalized at a young age. Rose is another “ghost” that haunts Tennessee throughout his life. At times it is on a rather filthy level.

Allegra Fulton plays Miss Edwina, Williams’ mother. She is yet another ghost that haunts Tennessee. She’s just another cloudy and misty vice on a foggy evening.

Maybe that’s the point of The Gentleman Caller. Everything and everyone in Williams’ life was just another hallucination, another “trip”. Tennessee Williams was one of the greatest playwrights ever. To have such a disturbing personal life makes his prolific career that much more incredible.

Lots of people have made lots of money writing books and making films about Ginsberg, The Beats and other famous people. I recently attempted to wade into a biography of John Lennon which was more or less a rehashing of tabloid headlines. It was a gigantic bestseller. A lot of tell-all books are.

If you are a big fan of Tennessee Williams and tell-all books, then this show is for you. For me, The Gentleman Caller was like visiting a Popeye’s franchise in Scarborough for wings. This is a shame, as I was expecting to enjoy a muffuletta or po’ boy sandwich in New Orleans.

Details

The Gentleman Caller played at Hart House Theatre in Toronto from Oct 19 to Oct 22. Tickets ranged from $18-$35

-Photo of Carmen Grant, Nigel Bennett and Harrison Thomas by Daniel DiMarco

2 thoughts on “Review: The Gentleman Caller (Zadkiel Productions)”

  1. Oct 22/11 – The Gentleman Caller, at Hart House, written by James Cunningham and Martin Hunter lasts a little over an hour, but anyone who has read even a little on the life of Tennessee Williams will find no new insights into this great playwright. And unfortunately after having seen Daniel MacIvor’s play “His Greatness,” this play seems even lesser. The cast may do a okay job, although Nigel Bennett is nothing like Williams, and I cannot see anyone paying for this particular hustler, but Allegra Fulton and Carmen Grant do an admirable job as his mother and sister. I feel most fortunate to have seen most of Williams material, including the later plays like Small Craft Warnings, The Red Devil Battery Sign, In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel, and the fairly recently discovered, Not About Nightingales. So there are a few advantages of being much older and realizing just how hard Williams was trying to recreate his period of greatness when he was the darling of the critics.

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