‘Blue Mountain’: a solicited audient’s response to ‘Philip’s Glass Menagerie’

Workshop performance of this weekend's SummerFest feature intensifies classic play's tragedy and humor by stripping its words to the bone

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

One dark and stormy night in January, I braved Portland’s mild winter weather for an unusual play called, of all preposterous things, Philip’s Glass Menagerie. The triple pun was enough to make me go—a mash-up of Philip Glass (whom I had recently written about) and Tennessee Williams’ famous tale of stifling Southern family love, adapted by Philip Cuomo and performed in CoHo’s black box theater by the CoHo Clown Cohort. (An updated production is playing this weekend at Coho SummerFest. Read Marty Hughley’s ArtsWatch preview.)

I knew practically nothing of the play, and I’m not gonna rehash it here. I knew it was a heavy one when I invited a friend and he said, “nah, Glass Menagerie, I’ve seen it once—oof!—once was plenty.” I mentally catalogued it as Deep & Troubling Theater and prepared myself for an evening of soul spilling and “ACTING!” Even with clowns and whatnot, I reasoned, it would probably still be pretty normal theater, right? Nope. What I got was Tennessee Williams stripped to the bone, the bones reassembled like Robert Crumb’s Ezekiel, dancing skeletons in a dark room with little more than a typewriter, a chaise, a couple pieces of fruit, and an inflatable unicorn.

… a play that sometimes seems lighter than air. Photo: Kevin Young (Neverland Images, LLC)

The result was spectacular. In that January workshop performance—preparation for this weekend’s Summerfest premiere—the four actors performed an interpretation (perhaps “translation” would be more accurate) of Williams’ memory play. The use of Glass’ music was frankly a little gratuitous, snippets from Passages and North Star piped in just for the interstices, barely enough to justify the pun, but I quickly got over that. A little Glass goes a long way, and too much would have detracted from the performance.

The real Glass inspiration was the Einstein on the Beach-like treatment of the text (actually Glass’ collaborator Robert Wilson probably deserves credit for that, but then we would lose the pun). Cuomo’s production stripped away something like 98 percent of Williams’ words, translating all that frustrated, understated, cloistered, closeted angst into the telegraphed language of clowning, like a Borges metastory adapted by Tati. Single words and short phrases, repeated and repeated and repeated again, became the scaffolding for long-form physical comedy, each little twist on the phrase a new revelation of plot or character or theme, each variation both a joke in itself and the punchline to earlier jokes. “I’m going to the movies.” “Come in!” “Blue Mountain.”

This achievement in itself would have been monumental, but then we got into the gender flipping and the serious clowning. Actor-director (and local legend) Isaac Lamb portrayed matriarch Amanda with a larger-than-life vulnerability, deftly maneuvering the character’s various moods: tender and domineering, morose and vulnerable, desperately cheerful, wistfully despairing. Australia-Portland transplant and experienced drag performer Emily Newton amazed me with her series of Gentleman Caller characters, each more ridiculous than the last. Murri Lazaroff-Babin as Tom (that’d be Mr. Williams) was the most overtly clown-like of the bunch, toggling adroitly between traditional mime routines (the bit with the cigarette was particularly good) and the hilariously helpless rage that is the fate of teenage writers everywhere. Sascha Blocker anchored the cast as Laura (Tom’s sister, based on Tennessee’s sister Rose, and don’t go googling her unless you’ve got a few hankies handy). Blocker’s red hair and fragile resilience reminded me above all of Julianne Moore’s star-making performance in Todd Haynes’ Safe, and on the few occasions when her performance turned comedic, she was funnier than anyone else.

The play was funny, sure, and sad at the same time—that’s to be expected—but I wasn’t actually prepared for it to be really funny and really sad. The text reduction worked wonders both for the humor and the underlying tragedy, its translation into kinetic instead of verbal language burying the play’s unstated themes deeper while bringing them right to the fore. Something about removing so much of the surface layer made the thematic payoff less obvious, more sublime. And I suspect the humor worked even better because the pathos was portrayed with such touching conviction; the humor and the gender-flipping and the silent film dramatics threw the pathos into sharper relief and made the emotional cuts deeper, more subtle, like a linoleum knife in the gut. It was sad because it was funny; it was funny because it was sad.

Sascha Blocker as Laura in ‘Philip’s Glass Menagerie.’ Photo: Kevin Young (Neverland Images, LLC)

On the back of the program, I found four research questions. My answers will, presumably, no longer be useful to Cuomo & Co., but here they are anyways.

1. Does the emotional intimacy of the piece hold up to the performance style, and does the style hold up over the entire length of a theatrical performance?

Normal clown performances exist as miniatures, whether on the street or during Cirque du Soleil scene changes, and it’s a little unusual to have an entire show based on clowning. It probably wouldn’t have worked without the clever text treatment: the words were there, but there weren’t many. Speaking as an irregular theatergoer, I think it’s the superabundance of text that turns people off of theater in the first place. I wasn’t displeased to have less to process.

We mentioned Tati earlier, and I think he’s a better point of comparison than Chaplin. Tati’s films are overwhelmingly visual but not exclusively so—bits of text pop up when they’re needed, which is seldom, and that makes the words all the more powerful. It also gives room for body language and other non-verbal cues, forefronting this crucial aspect of communication.

So yeah. It holds up. It does better than hold up, in fact: y’all nailed it.

2. Does the use of drag/gender performativity/gender switched roles add to or detract from the storytelling?

Added! I can now hardly imagine this play existing in any other form. I want to see every play ever written queered this way. Here it worked partially because this is a man’s memory of his mother, as it is his mother’s interpretation of the gentleman callers. The layers of memories within memories add to the layers of meaning and irony which are the core of any good drag performance. Lamb’s code switching was perfect, showing a masculine side to his matriarch, and Newton’s physical commentary on the perpetual embarrassment of being male was revelatory. The play is, in a sense, already in drag, based as it is on the claustrophobic feeling of living in a world where it impossible to be true to one’s self. CoHo didn’t so much queer The Glass Menagerie as bring its queerness out front.

3. Can we create a clown world in which it is obvious how much Amanda loves her children and how painful it is for Tom to leave?

Absolutely! I might say obviously so, because I was seeing it for the first time and fully felt these things. Amanda’s longing for status and love, Tom’s dismissiveness and secretiveness, Laura’s terror and dependence, their dysfunctional but genuine mutual affection and the impossibility of continuing to live together and live a normal life—all of this was communicated via body language, like it is in real life. Communication is always mostly non-verbal, there are always layers of irony behind our deepest and most superficial expressions, gender is always performative. In this way the production shows us the world as it is, reflecting the absurdity of real life back at us by taking us seriously.

4. Can the world be crazy enough for Tom to be driven away and for Laura to be driven into a world of glass?

Definitely. Have you seen the fuckin news lately? “I’m going to the movies.”

Coho SummerFest’s updated production of Philip’s Glass Menagerie runs through Sunday at Portland’s Coho Theatre, 2257 NW Raleigh Street. Tickets online.

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, singer, percussionist, and editor at Portland State University, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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2 Responses.

  1. DB says:

    What is an “audient”?

  2. Barry Johnson says:

    One who listens.

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