Encore Michigan

World Premiere: Slipstream’s ‘A Night of Stars’ sparkles

Review September 12, 2017 Patrice Nolan

FERNDALE, Mich. – Slipstream Theatre Initiative closes its season with a World Premiere that plucks truths, trials and torments from the life of iconic American playwright Tennessee Williams and places them squarely on stage. A Night of Stars with Tennessee Williams earned its writer, 20-year-old U of M student Maxim Vinogradov, a Hopwood Award in Drama as well as the Dennis McIntyre Prize. He co-directs this production with Victoria Rose Weatherspoon while STI Artistic Director Bailey Boudreau admirably fills the role of Tennessee Williams.

This is a memory play, a term coined by Williams himself to describe his first big success, “The Glass Menagerie.” In that play, the autobiographical character Tom states that, “The play is memory. Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic.”

This only begins to describe A Night of Stars with Tennessee Williams, in which we are greeted by a gracious, if intoxicated, Tennessee Williams and his bossy assistant – a woman who runs an overhead projector that splashes a rough graphic of constellations onto an upstage scrim. We are promised a “tour of the stars,” but this turns out to be the galaxy of celebrities Williams hung out with – many of whose careers were made when they appeared in his plays and film adaptations.

The overhead projector, we discover, is an imperfect memory machine that materializes people and scenes from Williams’ own life. Addled by years of alcohol and drug abuse, the memories come broken and unbidden, elbowing their way to the front and often obscuring the happy moments Williams desperately seeks.

As the memories unspool, we meet Marlon Brando and Paul Newman when they are young unknowns. We see Williams pursued by Elizabeth Taylor, Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn and Diana Barrymore, actresses who vie for and relate to his tragic female leads. (Something Williams strongly advises against.) He gets good advice from Greta Garbo and bad advice, but lots of laughs, from Truman Capote, who introduces him to the enfant terriblé Andy Warhol. We also encounter less famous but more significant ghosts who haunt Williams’ memory – his beloved sister Rose, the love of his life, Frank Merlo, and the overbearing mother he refuses to acknowledge.

For devotees of 20th Century American theater, this play is akin to going to church to hear Tennessee Williams preach. That said, enjoyment of this play does not hinge on intimate familiarity with the Williams canon. Most theater-goers will recognize allusions to his work and, perhaps, be inspired to go back and revisit those amazing dramas and read up on the man himself.

This remarkable memory play was originally commissioned by Boudreau as a two-hander about the conversation between Tennessee Williams and Marlon Brando the night he secured the role of Stanley Kowalski. Several iterations later, with the addition of multiple characters, Vinogradov submitted the play to the Hopwood Awards Program at U of M and subsequently won their undergraduate playwright award. “We got a cast together to read,” Boudreau recalls. “We took the judges’ comments from the awards and our critiques and talked about potential edits.” Vinogradov further distilled the script to the pithy format currently in production. “Max and Tori worked together to create the show we all envisioned,” Boudreau adds. “It was a very workshop-y kind of process.”

Vinogradov, who was last year’s winner of the Rising Star Wilde Award as an actor, described his experience developing the play with the STI company this way: “The process of watching actors speak it out loud was like learning what the words I wrote actually meant.”

Those words are alternately powerful, hilarious, and lyrically heartrending – and the cast brings them fully to life. Bailey Boudreau, as Tennessee Williams, is on stage for the entire 90-minutes. He creates a character that is alternately compassionate and cruel, generous and self-obsessed, strong willed but tender and emotionally fragile. We see Williams unable to protect those he loves most and hounded by the guilty demons that drive him to drug and alcohol abuse. Boudreau gives us an artist beguiled by the world’s fleeting beauty, yet compelled to release the monsters that civility tries to hide.

Jan Cartwright is the enigmatic assistant who facilitates the tour through Williams’ memories and vainly tries to keep the language and content clean. Tiaja Sabrie shines as sister Rose – appearing before and after the personal tragedy that affected Tennessee Williams as much as Rose herself. Steve Xander Carson is lovely as Williams’ doomed assistant and lover Frank Merlo. Ryan Ernst is simply hysterical as Truman Capote, perfectly capturing the voice, mannerisms and bitchy running commentary of the flamboyant writer. This year’s Rising Star Wilde Award nominee Jackson Abohasira effectively plays two diametrically opposed characters – Marlon Brando and Andy Warhol. And all the remaining characters are portrayed by Boudreau’s surprisingly talented drama students from West Bloomfield High School: Grace Jolliffe (Greta Garbo/Katherine Hepburn), Izzi Eyles (Elizabeth Taylor/Bette Davis), Blake Ehrlichman (Police Officer/Paul Newman), and Grace Trivax (Diana Barrymore).

Technical design and execution is by Ryan Ernst. Bailey Boudreau serves as costume designer. You’ll also want to pay attention to the music that opens and closes the show: Broadway star Brooke Moriber wrote an original song for STI after reading the script and falling in love with it. And Ryan Key, the former lead singer of Yellowcard, also contributes an original song.

A Night of Stars with Tennessee Williams is a poignant, affectionate and irresistible look at one of the world’s greatest playwrights. The simple set uses scrim and various transparent props to evoke the dreamy quality of memory gone rogue. Through this play, we understand that The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Sweet Bird of Youth, Summer and Smoke, Suddenly Last Summer and so many other brilliant plays could not have been possible had Tennessee Williams been able to set aside the memories that tormented his day-to-day existence. We regret his pain, but treasure the pearl.

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