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Kitchen Dog doesn't just clown around in their dazzling Glass Menagerie

Watching Kitchen Dog Theater's ballsy new interpretation of Tennessee Williams' dramatic warhorse The Glass Menagerie makes you feel as though you're doing a high-wire act right alongside the actors.

Director Tina Parker has taken Williams' kitchen-sink staple from its claustrophobic apartment in St. Louis into the Big Top. At first, watching the clown makeup and the freak-show posters and the men and women cavorting on swings over you, you can scarcely believe how much Parker's vision not only makes sense, but enhances the absurd poignancy of the original script. And a part of you keeps on disbelieving throughout this marvelous production, right up until the death-defying finale--until you realize, as the actors take their bows, that all of you have cheated theatrical death, and in the process walked across some dizzying heights. Through it all, the cynical critic expects to be knocked down by a false note, a strained allusion, an uncomfortable fit. All involved maintain their balance admirably.

It's hard to exaggerate the risk that Kitchen Dog took with this kind of staging, although that's based more on a public perception of this particular play and its author. The fact is, Tennessee Williams was obsessed throughout his career with illusion--a circus standard--and how his characters cling to it. Produced in 1940, The Glass Menagerie was Williams' first critical and financial success and set the pattern for much of his career. We like to explain away addictions--of which Williams had several, notably alcohol and tranquilizers--as the product of genetics or family dysfunction. But he's an exemplary case study in the argument that Jean Cocteau once made--artists are people who mourn the loss of childhood imagination more vividly than most, and so many of them constantly try to get it back through artificial means.

Tennessee Williams wrote like an addict in the tragic and beautiful sense of that word. He was addicted to a romantic vision of the world, to a place where romantic disappointment and family treachery sailed away on waves of hopeful sentiment. He also wrote about addicts--Amanda, Blanche, and Brick, to name just three of his most famous--who gouged out their own eyes rather than face the harsh glare of their particular circumstances.

So, yanking The Glass Menagerie out of the cage and placing it tenderly inside a hallucinatory context shouldn't jar us. In 1953, Williams himself attempted--and suffered his first major failure with--a more experimental exercise called Camino Real, a logical evolution that allowed the caged birds that were his dreamers to take flight into pure symbolism. But the circus? That's a place of big smelly animals and riotous physical comedy. Subtlety gets swept up with the elephant shit. Yet because Williams' dialogue in this play boils over with references to spectacle and trickery and magic and escapism, and because his three central characters are very much clowns in that sad, scary way in which clowns have always disturbed me--trapped behind their own permanent, fake facial expressions--the circus motif as well as the chair-pulling, pie-throwing antics simply bring into sharper relief the plight of Williams' characters.

I'd love to take up half this newspaper giving away all the wonderful inventions in this play: for instance, how mother Amanda's interrogation of daughter Laura's daytime habits turns into a knife-throwing act. But because I was consistently surprised with each as it occurred, I'll restrain myself and let ticket-buyers discover these pleasures for themselves. Instead, let me gush like a knife wound to the heart over the actors, who temper their performances to achieve a most difficult theatrical challenge--the union of comedy and tragedy in the same breath.

Dan Day as Tom Wingfield is both the ringmaster and the escape artist, but as he tells us through Williams at the start of the play, he's no magician: Those particular artists deal with illusion as truth, while he's going to be spinning truth as illusion. Day is a handsome, courtly master of ceremonies, but that doesn't stop him from feeling the button-end of a hand-buzzer or getting his chair pulled out from underneath him; he is also, we learn, a tragicomically inept escape artist. Mary Tharp wears her wild, fire-engine-red wig and increasingly heavy clown makeup with the sinister aplomb of every clown from my nightmares. She blends those with a genuine, if manipulative, undercurrent of maternal concern for her adult children, and in the process triggers the kind of Freudian anxieties that supply therapists with cellular phones and second homes. As the club-footed Laura, Shelly Tharp starts out as the freak, then winds up suffering a series of indignities as the most reluctant of these circus performers. Wisely avoiding the outright comedy that works so well for the other characters, Tharp turns up the vulnerability a notch under costumes and makeup, anchoring this production in palpable pathos. A hilarious Bill Lengfelder plays the Gentleman Caller as an extremely smug circus strongman. Lengfelder has the body, the physical skills, and an appropriately corners-tweaked mustache to make his stage incarnation utterly convincing. He also has the comic timing to turn the Gentleman Caller's exhortations about self-esteem into sideshow boasts.

There's no bigger compliment I can pay Kitchen Dog Theater's smashing production than to say that the next time I see The Glass Menagerie on stage or screen again--and I will, because it's constantly revived and because the script is one of my favorites--I will be a little disappointed, no matter how talented the actors or how intuitive the direction. So much resonates in the marriage of Parker's audacious interpretation and Williams' "memory play," I'll probably always smell burnt popcorn and tiger dung when Laura's parade of glass animals comes by (that's a compliment, by the way). It would be stretching the point to say that Kitchen Dog's staging is definitive, but saying that would also shortchange the achievement of Tina Parker and her cast. Their show doesn't box the often overlooked imagination of Tennessee Williams into any kind of definition. It frees audiences to be thrilled again by a play and a playwright they thought they had down pat.

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