There’s no question that Tennessee Williams is one of the highest regarded and greatest playwrights in theater. He is no stranger to creating some of the most iconic characters and stories that will forever be reused and recycled in pop culture. But like any artist, unfinished gems survive long after the artist has passed. And Williams is an example of that. For three decades, the pieces of one of Williams’s unfinished full lengths, In Masks Outrageous and Austere, have been attempted to be put together. The final project can now be seen at the Culture Project. Make no mistake, there are similar themes, personalities, and ideas that encompass Masks… that make it a genuine Williams play, but this is NOT your average Tennessee Williams production.
The very second you enter the theater, you begin to experience the tension and anxiety our main characters are soon to encounter. You are literally surrounded by James Noone’s pristine and sleek set on all sides with Alexander V. Nichols colorful LED lights combined with Darrell Maloney’s moving projections. Look closely at those pictures on the wall. Do they look familiar? They should. You’re being filmed. Terrifying? Absolutely. Want to add more anxiety? Three robotic men wearing identical suits and sunglasses watch us like a hawk, subtly reminding us of what we're about to see, and to turn off our cell phones. If you’re someone with major anxiety, don’t step foot inside until moments before the show begins. The anticipation may give you a heart attack. But once that door is slammed and the play is thrust into action, you learn that these uniformed Gideons are monitoring three abducted people, Babe Foxworth, an aging heiress, her young poet husband, Billy, and his even younger lover, Jerry. As they try to piece together where and why they are where they are, secrets are revealed and fights break out every which way. About halfway through the show, Billy, referring to him and his lovers, offers a line from another legendary playwright, “All the world’s a stage and we’re merely players.” Are they part of a masterpiece of theater within a certain characters mind serving as Williams’s proxy? I think so, but you’ll have to wait to find out in the end!
This place, though never located, is called “Gideon’s Point” where a cast of absurd characters waltz in and out of the scene, most of the time, still remaining in audience sight behind the plexiglass throughout the theater. While Babe, Billy, and Jerry appear to be stock characters from any Willliams play, the remaining nine characters may be Williams’s answer to absurdist theater. These characters include overdramtic neighbor of the invisible house next door, Mrs. Gorse-Bracken, played wonderfully by Alison Fraser, her retarded son Playboy who wears nothing but a raincoat, played exceptionally well by Connor Buckley, Babe’s untrustworthy maid Peg, oddly portrayed by Pamela Shaw, Peg’s new lover Joey (Christopher Halladay), and Mac and his Interpreter (Jermaine Miles and Jonathan Kim). Are you confused as to why these bizarre characters are in the same world as Babe, Jerry, and Billy? Well so are they. The legendary Shirley Knight, no stranger to performing the Williams cannon, portrays Babe with ease. Sure there are moments where you see the actress herself struggle with the words, but when she’s on, boy is she on. She offers a master class style performance where you want to see what she does next. Robert Beitzel as Billy has all the makings of a Williams character, though his accent could use some polishing. You could put him as Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and he could pull it off with ease. At first glance you have to wonder in what world would Beitzel’s Billy and Knight’s Babe be married, but when you dig into their exposition it all becomes clear. One of the best performances of the show comes from Sam Underwood as Jerry. From first interaction, it’s very clear why Billy has fallen for Jerry. Jerry doesn’t understand why he’s in this predicament and he will do anything to get himself, and his lover, out of it. Underwood shines with his conviction and ease on stage, making his character one of the only characters you have sympathy for. Though he’s well on his way, he will soon be one of those actors in very high demand.
As mentioned before, the overall design of Masks… is one of the best I have ever seen. The cohesiveness from all parties is what makes it such a success. Noone’s mirror and glass inspired headquarter allows for secrets and revelations alike that allows Nichols’s lights to create wonders. Gabriel Berry’s colorful yet sophisticated costumes are quite stunning, especially Fraser’s violet Gorse-Bracken dress. Dan Moses Schreier’s soundscape of beach sounds infused with the mechanical electronic score does wonders setting the mood for the play. And Maloney’s projections are nothing short of dramatic. David Schweizer does a nice job directing this “new” Williams play. Sure, occasionally some of his characters wander aimlessly in circles on the porch, but when they suddenly appear out of the darkness in every crevice of the set, you can’t help but think CREEPY!
If you’re a Tennessee Williams aficionado, you cannot miss In Masks Outrageous and Austere. You’ll wish you could see what a completely finished product would be, but you’ll love it nonetheless. If you walk out of the theater confused as to what you just saw, it’s probably a success.