Dazzled and Confused

Would that every local theater company could afford nine-month rehearsal periods for each of its shows. Then maybe every production would be as noteworthy as In Mixed Company's Out Cry, now playing at downtown's Third Street Theatre. Director David Barker, who's known for making difficult theater accessible to non-theater audiences, began rehearsing this relatively obscure Tennessee Williams play last summer. The result is a masterful, fast-moving interpretation that's always engaging.

That's no small feat: Out Cry is a dense, difficult piece of absurdist theater that's hard to push past the footlights. Like most Williams plays, it's thick with symbolism, but unlike Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Night of the Iguana, Out Cry relies on theatrical metaphor, rather than emotion, to propel its pessimistic, angst-filled story.

Out Cry's history is as complex as its narrative. Originally produced as The Two Character Play in London in 1967, the show was later reworked and produced in Chicago in 1971 as Out Cry. That version was again rewritten and published in 1975, with Williams reclaiming the original title. This is the version Barker appears to be using, although the show's more accessible name appears on the playbill.

In all its versions, Out Cry thrusts us into the spooky lives of Claire and Felice, a brother-and-sister acting team who have been abandoned by their company in a state theater. Without a cast and crew, they are forced to dump their scheduled entertainment and substitute an autobiographical piece called The Two Character Play, which concerns the murder-suicide of their mother and father. Clare and Felice are unable to distinguish between past and present, fiction and reality; and, in both Out Cry and its play-within-a-play, we, the audience, can become equally confused.

But Barker has simplified the piece, making it more coherent without stripping away any of its dense, dark meaning. Although he claims that he functioned more as a "guide and binding arbitrator" than a director here, Barker's imprint is all over this production. He understands the play's shadowy focus and its obscure theological references, and resists the vain temptation of pumping up its numerous theater metaphors--a coup for any thespian.

More important, he's able to overcome the play's main flaw, which is that its two characters are so similar that they're occasionally indistinguishable. Out Cry is autobiographical to the point that Williams has both his characters spouting the same rhetoric, and the piece sounds occasionally more like a monologue than a two-person play. Clare and Felice are not even conflicting halves of a whole personality; they are written--perhaps intentionally--as two versions of the same voice. To further confuse matters, the pair shift from their characters in the play to their actorly selves with alarming frequency. (Some clues that, if you see Out Cry, will help you distinguish between the characters in the story and those in the play-within-a-play: The actors Clare and Felice never finish one another's sentences; only Felice the actor ever speaks to the audience; when their identities begin to merge, they are performing in their two-character play.)

Barker untangles these complex shifts with the help of a couple of veteran performers. I couldn't take my eyes off Barbara Acker, whose colorful performance as Clare makes that character more lively and more likable than she's written--imagine Lillian Hellman's Regina Giddens as played by Marjorie Morningstar. And Steven Mastroieni's nimble Felice (who, according to legend, Williams named after writer Felice Picano) is a neurotic monster who is doomed to endlessly relive his tormented past onstage. Felice is made to create and then carry the theatrical context of the story, and must move gracefully from addressing his sister to addressing her character in his play and the audience. Mastroieni masters these long, complicated speeches and their awkward transitions with equal aplomb.

All of that shifting locomotion--from the play's frame story to its Pirandello-inspired merging of dream and reality--can be confusing, and a less studied production might lose its audience in a stockpile of Southern Gothic subtext. But Barker and company have taken an overlong, overly opaque piece of theater and transformed it from a terrible two-headed monster into a celebration of Williams' poetic language and style. I'm not convinced that someone who doesn't have a working knowledge of Tennessee Williams will completely appreciate Out Cry, with its overly autobiographical and overtly therapeutic tone. But I do know that this excellent, well-tuned interpretation makes the most of a difficult and rarely seen piece of theater.

In Mixed Company's Out Cry continues through Saturday, June 6, at the Third Street Theatre at the Phoenix Center for the Performing Arts, 1202 North Third Street. For more information, see the Stages listing.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela