A rarely produced queer-themed Tennessee Williams play performed in a Danforth pizza restaurant.
First of all, I love the idea of The Tennessee Project; a collection of local theatre companies producing lesser-known one-act Tennessee Williams plays in neighbourhoods across Toronto with shows rotating venues nightly. What an awesome way to make theatre accessible!
The Tennessee Project also doesn’t perform in traditional theatres, the venues are a variety of unique local establishments; bars, community centers, cafés, art galleries and, in the case of the performance I attended last night, The Magic Oven, an organic pizza restaurant in the Danforth.
Afterglow Theatre takes on And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens for the project. It’s one of Williams’ lesser-known works. Written in 1957, it’s also the queer playwright’s only play with overtly gay characters and themes. The piece was never produced in Williams’ lifetime.
And Tell Sad Stories centers on Candy Delaney (Seth Drabinsky), an interior decorator and property owner in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Candy is a drag queen and rents out the upstairs “slave quarters” of her home to Alvin and Jerry (Geoff Stevens and Adam Norrad), two catty younger gay boys from Alabama.
Recently abandoned by an older lover, Candy picks up a rough hewn sailor, Karl (Mark Waters) at a gay bar, brings him home and desperately tries to establish a connection with the brutish seaman.
On the surface, I thought the story mirrored another more famous Williams play, A Streetcar Named Desire. Candy could be a drag queen version of faded Southern belle Blanche Dubois and the violent Karl is reminiscent of Stanley Kowalski.
The play also parallels Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly. It opens with Candy dressed in drag as a geisha and, later in the play, she even performs the aria Un bel dì vedremo from the opera. The aria depicts the tragic geisha faithfully waiting and pining for a man who will never love her in return.
My show-going companion Taran, a queer and gender studies major, thought the play was remarkably insightful for something written in post-war, pre-sexual revolution, pre-civil rights America.
Taran pointed to Candy’s descent into self-loathing as a reflection of the deeply engrained societal gay shame of the time. Candy’s increasing self-hatred is reflected in her interactions with her two young tenants. She becomes progressively annoyed with their lifestyle and refers to them with increasingly hostile language; first as “queens,” later as “bitches,” and finally “faggots”.
Candy spirals into depression at the prospect of turning 35. Her youth spent and her beauty fading, she is increasingly desperate to find a companion and becomes fixated with the violent, unattainable Karl and heaps her affection on him with predictable result; perhaps her greatest act of self-hatred.
The multi-talented Seth Drabinsky ably carries much of the weight of the show as Candy. He sings, performs in drag and also evokes Candy’s fragility and pathos in a way that really made the character sympathetic. Director Aaron Rothermund effectively stages the play with an unfussy simplicity that allows the audience to focus on the many nuances of the text.
Like much of Williams’ work, And Tell Sad Stories is a rich character study of a compellingly layered damaged individual. And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens is a hidden gem of the Tennessee Williams canon and is well worth a look.
- And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens by Afterglow Theatre is playing at various locations across Toronto as part of The Tennessee Project until May 7, 2012
- Tuesday, May 1st The Danforth: Magic Oven (discount pizza and beer), 8pm
- Wednesday, May 2nd Leslieville: The Curzon. 8pm
- Thursday, May 3rd The Annex: The Green Room, 7:30pm
- Friday, May 4th Roncesvalles: Lokys, 8pm
- Saturday, May 5th North York: The Gibson House, 8pm
- Sunday, May 6th St. Clair West: Galleria 814, 8pm
- Monday, May 7th Cabbagetown: Kiwanis Boys and Girls Club, 8pm
- Tickets $18.00 available at www.tennesseeprojecttoronto.com