Grass Menagerie

No secret what Tennessee Williams might have been inhaling as he worked his chubby fingers over the typewriter keys creating The Gnädiges Fräulein. This bizarrely funny absurdist one-act, now on view in a production by WingSpan Theatre Company at the Bath House Cultural Center, burbles with doobie-doobie daffiness—like Waiting for Godot done by Cheech and Chong.

Standing in for Beckett's tramps we get Molly and Polly, middle-aged friends fighting over a fatty as they synchronize their rocking chairs. The joints they smoke are tightly rolled; the women are not.

Molly, portrayed with extra dollops of wide-eyed wack by Susan Sargeant, is the muumuu-wearing landlady at The Big Dormitory, a bargain-priced outpost for losers and has-beens on the made-up island of Cocaloony Key. Polly (Beverly Jacob Daniel), the "Southernmost gossip columnist and society editor of the southernmost news organ in the Disunited Mistakes," is interviewing Molly for a write-up about the boardinghouse and its residents.

One of Molly's down-and-out guests is the title character, a mysterious "soubrette" played by Lulu Ward. Every so often she interrupts Molly and Polly's front-porch palaver to warble a few bars of an aria chosen from a faded playbill. The women stop whatever they're doing to listen to her, just as they do to cower in terror when the ravenous cocaloony bird flaps by on its way to the docks for fish. Pelican-like, it has already attacked the Fräulein, plucking out one of her eyes. Before the play is over, it will get the other.

The bird, who only says "Awk! Awk!," is played by Jeff Swearingen, clad in a long orange beak, some rather ragged wings and a tiny snip of a swimsuit. Rounding out the unorthodox collection of creatures in this tropical fantasia is Indian Joe (Joel McDonald), dressed like a gay disco version of a cigar-store Cherokee. All he says is "Ugh."

The Gnädiges Fräulein (the title translates as "gracious young lady") is the work of a Tennessee Williams on the cusp of madness and having a good one over on his critics. He wrote it in 1966, paired with the one-act called The Mutilated as an evening of Slapstick Tragedy. He was stretching himself with these plays, which have been described as his attempts at the then-avant-garde trend toward the "theater of cruelty." Stretching in the wrong direction, said the critics.

Just reaching his mid-50s, Williams already was regarded as a playwright in decline. His last major stage success, The Night of the Iguana, was in 1961, and his greatest plays—Glass Menagerie, Streetcar, Summer and Smoke, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—were products of a remarkable streak that began in the mid-1940s and lasted well into the late 1950s.

The 1960s, however, brought Williams less acclaim and lots of despair. He suffered the loss of his longtime lover, Frank Merlo, who died of cancer in 1963. And he watched his beloved sister, Rose, lose her grasp on reality as the result of a prefrontal lobotomy (a topic he explored in gothic detail in Suddenly, Last Summer). Battling his own depression and alcoholism, Williams retreated to the Florida Keys, which must truly have provided some coca-loony diversions.

All of his favorite themes recur in Gnädiges Fräulein, as if he's cobbling together a comic medley of his hits. The Southern busybody, the rundown boardinghouse, the terrifying image of a giant bird ripping out the eyes of people—Williams wove those into many of his plays, from the earlier Menagerie to the later Vieux Carré. He also loved to rail against parasites, human or otherwise, and he has Molly do it at length: "Nothing is more intolerant, Polly, than one parasite of another."

In the 1955 reviews of Cat, critics marveled at Williams' reinvention of the dramatic form. But for his even wilder ripping up of theatrical conventions for Fräulein, they punished him for trying something new. The Broadway production of Slapstick Tragedy closed after seven performances.

Maybe it was one of those "too strange, too soon" things. Under the sure-handed direction of René Moreno, WingSpan's Fräulein makes plenty of sense, gets plenty of laughs and is full of nice surprises. The first is the visual wallop of scenic designer Randel Wright's set—a stark gray-white porch, some picket fencing and a curling swoop up the Bath House wall that suggests a tidal wave. In this most difficult of spaces to design for, Wright has come up with something that efficiently interprets the "wow" of the play. And just when parts of the set become familiar, they begin to change.

The best surprise of all is the performance by Susan Sargeant, one of the area's top directors and an infrequent actress last seen moping around as Linda Loman in Classical Acting Company's flawed Death of a Salesman. Here, it's like she's thrown off the pall of low-budget Arthur Miller and gone giddy with the provocative silliness of Williams' words. She is get-down funny as Molly, drenching her delivery in Southern "chahm" and tossing her head around under a blond wig the size of a hay bale.

Sargeant and Daniel turn Molly and Polly into a crack comic duo. They work with the timing of skilled vaudevillians, and if they hadn't gone tongue-tied on some particularly tricky runs of repetitive dialogue, they would have earned even bigger giggles on opening night.

The faded glory of vaudeville is another theme Williams juggles in this play. The Fräulein herself is a former member of an act that included a trained seal. Her downfall came one night when she upstaged the seal by snatching a tossed fish in her own mouth, thus catching the audience, the seal and the trainer off-guard. Perhaps by the 1960s Tennessee Williams had begun to feel a bit like that seal, expected to keep up the moves of the act that had made him famous. With The Gnädiges Fräulein he dared to upstage his own reputation, baring his teeth and showing the world another side of his troubled soul.

New plays about serial killers—ugh. A few weeks ago it was the execrable Glory of Living, the violent drama by Rebecca Gilman that opened Second Thought Theatre's season. Now comes Frozen, Bryony Lavery's three-actor fugue of monologues about a serial child murderer, the mother of a victim and the psychiatrist out to prove that such killers aren't born evil but are made that way by head injuries.

Directed by Robin Armstrong and staged in the subterranean Theatre Too space at Theatre Three, Frozen is a feel-bad experience, first word to last. We suffer the wails and sorrows of the grief-stricken mother, played by Elizabeth Rothan, spitting out her soliloquies in the same confused British accent she applies to so many roles. We sit through the chilling confession of the sociopathic killer (Steven Pounders), who lures children into his van with an innocent "Hello?" And then there's the doctor (Jennifer Pasion), an "Icelandic-American" with issues about personal boundaries.

Frozen wants to disturb, so Lavery resorts to nasty words and graphic descriptions of sex acts. But any episode of Law & Order: SVU covers the same ground with better writing and acting and with much more skillful storytelling. The TV series also shows greater compassion for victims. Frozen seems to be begging for empathy for creeps who rape and kill kids. The mother? She gets on with life just fine after confronting the man who murdered her daughter. As contemporary drama with a spurious message, Frozen's just a dirty snow job.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner