Larry Coen channels Sidney Greenstreet in little-seen Williams’ play
Tennessee Williams remains one of American theater’s most prolific playwrights. Even after he lost favor with the critics in the 1960s and 1970s, he wrote every day. The result is a treasure-trove of unproduced works, which has made the annual Tennessee Williams Festival - held each September in Provincetown - a must-attend event for the playwright’s admirers, both for audience members and theater companies that perform his works.
One such company is the Beau Jest Movement Company, the Boston-based troupe that for some 25 years mixed physical movement with innovative texts to create unique and acclaimed productions. They have brought their work to New York with three off-Broadway productions, as well as festivals throughout the world.
One of the company’s key talents is Larry Coen, one of the most regarded actors and directors from Boston. Coen is known for his range and fearless determination he brings to every role he plays - from Shakespeare (he’s been a frequent cast member of the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s annual productions on the Boston Common) to the Gold Dust Orphans, where he’s given drag takes on such famous roles as Edward Albee’s George ("Who’s Afraid of the Virgin Mary?"), Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman ("Death of a Saleslady") and Williams’ Big Daddy ("Pussy on the House.") For his acting roles, he’s received two Elliot Norton Awards.
He has also received two Norton awards for his work as a director, most recently for his staging of Charles Busch’s "The Divine Sister" last year for the SpeakEasy Stage Company. He is also the artistic director of City Stage Co., which provides free arts education programs and performances for low-income kids and families. And "Epic Proportions" - the satiric comedy about Hollywood he co-wrote with David Crane - played on Broadway with Kristen Chenoweth in 1999.
This weekend Coen returns to the Beau Jest as they head to Provincetown for "Ten Blocks on the Camino Real," which the company produced in Boston last Spring. For Williams’ fans, it gives them the opportunity to see the first version of Williams’ fantasy play, which was produced on Broadway in the early 1950s in a longer version. This earler version was never produced.
The production is directed by Beau Jest’s founding director Davis Robinson, who has staged two Tennessee Williams Festival world premieres: "The Remarkable Rooming-House of Madame LeMonde" and "American Gothic." This production will be the first ever to follow Williams’ stage directions.
EDGE recently spoke to Coen about the show.
Why the Festival?
EDGE: This is the third time that Beau Jest is appearing at the Festival. What is it about the Festival that makes you want to return?
Larry Coen: Well to begin with... the Festival is in Provincetown in September, which is a Heaven on Earth mixture of climate, location and the right number of people in the town! Also, there are performers and audiences from all over the world. There’s a lot of site-specific work and theatrical experimentation. And then there is the opportunity to hear close up from giants like Eli Wallach, Lanford Wilson and John Guare.
EDGE: During his lifetime, Tennessee Williams was both lauded (early on) and damned (later in his life). Yet he never seemed bothered by criticism and continued to write up until his death. What do you think is his legacy?
Larry Coen: He is the best and most important playwright of the 20th Century. His personal life transcended so many lines and contradictions that he was able to give voice and find poetry in the subtle and illogical threads of American life, which our straight-forward culture had no way of illuminating.
EDGE: Are his later works, generally dismissed in his lifetime, getting a more honest assessment today?
Larry Coen: Definitely! I think that in his lifetime and shortly after, many of Williams’ later plays were examined (and dismissed) through prisms that reflected critics’ ignorance and prejudices of gayness, mental illness and drug use. People made lots of statements like, "He must have been high when he wrote this," etc. Now that some time has passed we can look at these works.
A different play
Larry Coen: ’Ten Blocks on the Camino Real’ is a different play than "Camino Real," correct?
Larry Coen: Yes. ’Ten Blocks on the Camino Real’ was written in New Orleans in 1946, which places it between two of Williams’ monumental works, ’The Glass Menagerie’ and ’A Streetcar Named Desire.’ While the script was unproduced, Elia Kazan used scenes from it in workshops at the Actors’ Studio. Seeing the material performed by people like Eli Wallach and Barbara Baxley got Wiliams excited about what he’d written. He expanded it from the ’Ten Block’ version (which we’re performing) to the ’Sixteen Block’ version, which was done on Broadway in 1953 as ’Camino Real.’
EDGE: What are the differences?
Larry Coen: Much of the core is the same; people fleeing the world become trapped at the end-of-the-road in a Twilight Zone type town. But the "Ten Block" version is a bit starker and more abstract than the expanded play. It has more of the cold, ironic experimental tone of Beckett and Ionesco, while the Broadway script has more emotionalism and poetry.
EDGE: Williams described the play as "nothing more nor less than my conception of the time and the world I live in." That was in the early 1950s. Does it apply today?
Larry Coen: Absolutely! The play is about people who are fleeing from something at the end of an unmarked highway. There is authoritarian brutality and there are consequences to having no money. That still applies today. The only difference might be what it is people are running from.
Real and surreal
EDGE: The play offers a mix of realism and surrealism. How do you balance these elements in this production?
Larry Coen: We use puppets, dance, live music and impressionistic scenery, all of which reminds the audience that we are in a theater watching a performance. In many ways, the heightened theatricality keeps the audience from reaching that point where they say, ’Oh I get it, this is Mexico and she represents ’innocence lost’ etc. Because audiences stop listening when they think they’ve figured out a play the way one might figure out a math problem. Stella Adler said something to the effect of, ’Put a living room on stage and the audience says, "Oh yes. A living room. I know all about living rooms.’ Take the furniture away and use a bare stage and the audience thinks, ’I’m going to have to watch where this goes...’
EDGE: You play Gutman - the hotel owner - who was said to named for a character played by Sidney Greenstreet in ’The Maltese Falcon.’ Are you channeling Greenstreet in your performance?
Larry Coen: Oh, honey... as I get older and wider it gets harder and harder NOT to channel Sidney Greenstreet in all of my performances! But the best part of channeling Greenstreet is that I can fan myself onstage while sipping iced drinks! Those playing the peasants just sweat.
In the play, Williams assembles a wide array of legendary characters; Casanova, Camille, Kilroy (as in "Kilroy was here"), Don Quixote etc. I love that Gutman is drawn from pulp and noir, which contrasts so nicely with the elevated beginnings of some of the others.
Back with Beau Jest
EDGE: Beau Jest went dark for a few years, but the company returned in the past few years. Are you back for good?
Larry Coen: We’re an ensemble company and we’re project-based. There was a change in our output after Artistic Director Davis Robinson moved up to Maine to teach at Bowdoin College. But in the past few years we mounted ’Samurai 7.0’ and the World Premiere Productions of Tennessee Williams’ ’The Remarkable Rooming House Of Madame Lemonde’ and ’American Gothic.’ We’re all still having fun so I think we’ll keep going!
EDGE: What do you have planned for the fall and winter?
Larry Coen: Personally? City Stage Co. where I am Artistic Director is going into our back-to-school mode of education programs I’m directing David Henry Hwang’s ’Chinglish’ for Lyric Stage Company; I’m acting in workshops of Ryan Landry’s ’M’ at The Huntington; I’m directing ’The Divine Sister’ at Red Barn Theatre in Key West and I’m trying to finish the first draft of a full-length play I’m writing.
Remaining performances of "Ten Blocks On The Camino Real" are Friday September 21, Saturday September 22, and Sunday September 23, 2012 at the Provincetown Theater , 238 Bradford Street, Provincetown, MA. $25. For more information, visit the Tennessee Williams Festival website.