BWW Reviews: Haunting GREEN EYES at Ames Hotel
Written by Tennessee Williams; Produced by Company One in cooperation with Chris Keegan and The Kindness; Directed by Travis Chamberlain, Production Design by Travis Chamberlain & Chris Keegan, Sound Design by Duncan Cutler & Travis Chamberlain, Lighting Design by Derek Wright
CAST: Alan Brincks & Erin Markey, with Sheldon Brown
Performances EXTENDED through February 26 at Ames Hotel, One Court Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-292-7110 or www.companyone.org
Room 303 at the Ames Hotel is a steamy, claustrophobic space where an intense battle of wills takes place in Green Eyes, a Tennessee Williams one-act play written in 1970 that went unpublished for nearly forty years. This Boston premiere, a collaboration between Company One and Chris Keegan and The Kindness, reunites Director Travis Chamberlain and actress Erin Markey from its sold-out run in New York City in 2011. With only 25 seats available for each performance, tickets are in short supply, which is good news for Company One, but bad news for anyone hoping to score a ducat for the remaining shows.
Set in a 1970's New Orleans motel room, Green Eyes is a war story informed by Vietnam and the post-traumatic stress suffered by the grunts that fought there, metaphorically played out on the double bed of a honeymooning young couple. Mr. and Mrs. Claude Dunphy bear striking similarities to characters in earlier plays by Williams, notably Stanley Kowalski and Blanche DuBois from A Streetcar Named Desire, and Brick and Maggie from Cat On a Hot Tin Roof. However, Claude and his bride are more than re-creations and each has their own psychological demons which are revealed during their increasingly violent skirmishes.
Claude (Alan Brincks) is a soldier home on leave for the next five days from "Waakow," the Williams alias for Vietnam. The honeymoon isn't going very well because the missus has mysterious tooth and claw marks all over her body and hubby wants an explanation. She wants breakfast and a day of sightseeing, but her evasions do not mollify him. Claude is strong and his anger is powerful, but, like her literary forebears, Mrs. Dunphy's strength is her sexuality and you can see it in her eyes as she calculates just how far she can push him. Even as the audience shrinks back from Claude's hair-trigger explosions, she barely flinches. She is the predator and he is her prey.
Those seated in the front row have to keep their hands and feet tucked in close or risk becoming a casualty as the action sometimes occurs within inches of them. The end of the bed is about six feet away, across a small expanse of oriental carpet, but Claude and Mrs. Dunphy (the playwright doesn't give her a first name) stride around their room, scuffle on the floor, and generally take full advantage of the limited space. When Markey makes her entrance, she saunters over to The Edge of the carpet as she sings along with a Bessie Smith tune on the radio, seductively making eye contact with individual members of the audience. She turns her back and gives a subtle signal for one to unzip her pale yellow dress for her, steps lithely out of it, and tosses her discarded bra into someone's lap before diving under the covers.
It doesn't get much more up close and personal than that in live theater. The audience is submerged in the world of the play by the Chamberlain/Keegan production design, making it feel like we are flies on the wall of a motel room in the Big Easy, rather than voyeurs in an upscale Boston boutique hotel. For approximately forty-five minutes, twenty-five pairs of eyes are transfixed; it is impossible to look away, even as the scenes become progressively more dangerous and difficult to watch. Williams' character-driven story is propelled by the incredibly strong acting of Markey and Brincks, enhanced by Fight Director Jason Howard's realistic choreography of the physical altercations between husband and wife.
Despite the brevity of the play, its content is so intense that it satisfies more like a feast than an appetizer. With sound design by Duncan Cutler and Chamberlain, and lighting by Derek Wright, it is a feast for the senses, as well. Jazz music emanates from the bedside radio, simulated sounds of war erupt during Claude's traumatic flashbacks, the flame from a cigarette lighter casts a glow on its user's face, and shafts of sunlight stream through the rattan window shade, all combining to transport the viewer to this very specific time and place.
After Markey removes her dress at the start of the show, she spends the rest of the play topless or wearing a thin robe that often falls open, revealing the abrasions on her body. Her lack of self-consciousness is astounding; she wears her nakedness like a costume, even eschewing a cover-up garment during the curtain calls. Brincks is clad in army drab boxer briefs and dog tags, presenting a constant reminder of his servitude, and the waiter (Sheldon Brown) who brings the room service tray is dressed in jungle camouflage fatigues.
Prior to going to see the play, it was hard to imagine what it would be like to watch a performance in the confines of a hotel room, with the worst case scenario being gimmicky. On the contrary, Chamberlain has designed a strikingly honest depiction of this couple's story that hinges on the authenticity of the setting, the courageousness of his actors, and the closeness of the audience. There is not a false note in his composition of Green Eyes and you cannot escape being haunted by it.
Photo credit: Karl Giant (Erin Markey)