In a New York Times review of the original 1977 production of the Tennessee Williams play “Vieux Carré,” critic Clive Barnes wrote, “It is a play of blatant melodrama and crepuscular atmosphere—poetically speaking, and he never tried anything less; Mr. Williams always writes of violence at twilight. Its qualities are those of texture rather than form. It is a series of vignettes, based on fact, falsified by art, transformed into short stories, and woven into a play.”
Despite the show’s relatively negative reputation in light of Williams’s overall success as a playwright, drama students at Vassar tackled “Vieux Carré” head-on and the production was a resounding success.
The show was a senior project in drama, an optional thesis project undertaken by drama students with a focus in areas such as directing, dramaturgy and stage design.
“Vieux Carré” was a combined senior project by the director, set designer and choreographer Matt Goldstein ’17; casting director Naa Nikoi ’17; actress, choreographer and props designer Becky Wilson ’17; and actors Sally Roberts ’17, Billy Porges ’17 and Dan Thompson ’17. Members met for 16 hours of rehearsal each week and senior project members dedicated another three hours to weekly meetings outside of regular rehearsal.
“In five short weeks we cast the show, did detailed dramaturgy and script analysis, blocked and choreographed the show, teched it and then performed,” Wilson enumerated. “It wasn’t until really last night, our closing performance, that it hit me that this was supposedly the ‘pivotal moment’ of my Vassar drama career.”
Associate Professor of Drama and faculty advisor for this production Shona Tucker explained the reasoning behind the senior project in drama in an email: “The senior project is a capstone project created to address several educational and practical concerns: 1. It can create a means for the large number of seniors to participate in a meaningful way in a theatrical production as their senior project. 2. It can and should cultivate a spirit of collaboration and deep exploration on a given production or artistic endeavor. 3. It allows seniors to showcase what they have learned in the last four years and to work independently with the support of the department and faculty advisors.”
“Vieux Carré” tells the largely autobiographical story of a young writer who moves into a broken-down boarding house on Toulouse Street in New Orleans, LA, in the heart of the French Quarter, the titular “old square.”
The writer—unnamed—grapples with his latent homosexuality and poverty. The other tenants he meets, from two malnourished elderly women to a young woman battling both illness and an abusive boyfriend to his gay neighbor dying of tuberculosis, further challenge and hinder his personal growth. To top it all off, their landlady, Mrs. Wire turns out to be crazed and manipulative.
“A big reason we chose this play was because it deals with the identity, especially queer identity,” said Porges, “as Williams writes about his experiences in New Orleans in the late ’30s, when he began to explore and experience his queer identity among like-minded peers.”
The senior project participants—along with their fellow actors and production team—did a phenomenal job capturing the myriad themes and nuances in this tough play. “Vieux Carré” is what is known as a memory play, a term coined by Tennessee Williams himself for his later work, “The Glass Menagerie,” in reference to a play told through the memory of the narrator.
“Vieux Carré” is a play consisting mostly of choppy vignettes and high drama with little drive. The students involved thus deserve a lot of recognition in how they gained considerable control over the material to create a cohesive and emotional piece of art that still paid homage to the great playwright’s intentions.
The hazy stage periodically pierced through by spotlights contributed greatly to the idea of the plot being filtered through a character’s mind, as did the dreamy and minimalistic dance interludes interspersed between many of the scenes.
The wonderful live jazz band accompanying the performances, led by composer and music director Conor Chinitz ’18, bolstered these moody scenes, deftly rising and falling along with the turbulent plot.
“I had a blast working on ‘Vieux Carré,’” Chinitz wrote in an email. “I love combining art forms, so writing music to accompany dance-like transitions in a theatrical production was really exciting … I’m so thankful for the cast, creative team, and especially the members of the pit band. They were all a joy to work with.”
The most tangible element of this narrative manipulation, though, was the brilliant use of theatre in the round. The rotating points of view and swirling compositions within the circular stage essentially cast the surrounding audience as voyeurs into the writer’s mind. While watching, it was easy to feel the blurred tension between succumbing to the emotions of the characters and taking a step back to analyze as an audience member.
The play was absolutely absorbing, and the acting engrossing. The audience felt at once intimately connected to and wildly disconnected from the characters, a dual effect that is the product of both Williams’s genius and the elements intensely specific to his individual experience and psyche.
Tucker elaborated on the difficulty of this particular piece, namely the challengingly slow pace of the memory play, the specificity of the time and place Williams was depicting in this piece and the numerous accents present in “Vieux Carré.”
In her words, “There are several accents at play in this piece and so the young actor cannot necessarily rely on listening to his fellow actor to pick up the rhythm and cadence … [Additionally] this play is chock-full of social/racial/cultural/gender/health issues. This is sometimes a bit daunting for any actor to want to ‘go there’ on any of these angst-inducing topics.”
In light of the recent presidential election, these topics were particularly difficult for members of the cast to confront in such an intimate setting. “[T]here was a mutual feeling of despair throughout the cast and crew of the show, and for me there were moments when I thought I would be unable to actually perform the show, because indulging in art felt frivolous, and the content of the show hit too close to home to the real threat that Trump as a president poses,” Wilson explained. “Doing this show this week was hard, to say the least, but I think that ultimately, performing this piece was so important and salient to the issues we are dealing with right now.”
Porges commiserated, saying, “For me, art is a crucial part in my grieving process and I hope to continue to make art that can highlight important themes that are necessary for progress in our nation.”
Despite the fact that the already demanding process of rehearsal was intensified just prior to the show, the cast strove to find healing in performance.
Wilson remarked, “Although the process of creating this show was not easy for me (or anyone, I think,) it was a perfect ending to my Vassar drama career, and I feel honored and blessed to have worked alongside so many beautiful, talented human beings. Upon completion of this show, I feel pride; I feel a sense of closure; and I feel a sense of community.”