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Hot (and funny) stuff: (l-r) Dillahunt and Hamilton in The Night of the Iguana.

Sex on the Beach

By James Yeara

The Night of the Iguana

By Tennessee Williams, directed by Anders Cato

Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, Mass., through Aug. 12

‘You look like you had it,” Maxine says.

“You look like you’ve been having it, too.” Rev. Shannon replies.

This initial exchange between the recently defrocked Rev. Lawrence Shannon (Garret Dillahunt) and the recently dehusbanded Maxine Faulk (Linda Hamilton) get the first laughs in Berkshire Theatre Festival’s excellent production of Tennessee Williams’ 1961 play The Night of the Iguana and sets the scene for the rest of performance. Dillahunt’s Shannon is one step away from the gutter, and Hamilton’s deliciously named Faulk just rolled out of it. What exhausts Shannon is what enflames Maxi Faulk, and she eyes the handsome on-the-edge ex-minister like a devout communicant awaiting the Host. Unlike Williams’ other great plays, under Anders Cato’s sensitive direction, BTF’s Iguana finds the surprising laughter at the heart of the play, and the surprising hopeful ending. Threats of death, abandonment, betrayal, and madness circle Williams’ Iguana, but they ultimately stay out of the illumination thrown off by Maxi Faulk’s fire for brittle Rev. Shannon.

Iguana tells the story of the newly widowed Faulk and her healthy “swimming boys” Pancho (Ricky Fromeyer) and Pedro (Joshua Gunn) as the three act as caretakers for the Costa Verde Hotel in Puerto Barrio on the west coast of Mexico in 1940. Plopped into their sweaty midst are Shannon, an Episcopalian minister-turned-tour guide who was “locked out of his parish for fornication and heresy in the same week.” Shannon has a love-hate relationship with teenage girls—he loves them and then immediately hates himself for the act. As the action begins, he brings a tour of teenage girls from a Baptist College under the watchful eyes of brass-lunged chaperone Miss Judith Fellows (an excellent Charlotte Maier) which brings new definition to “living hell,” and Nantucket spinster Hannah Jelkes (Amelia Campbell) with her grandfather Jonathan Coffin (expertly played by BTF veteran William Swan), at 97 the “oldest living and practicing poet.”

The game playing, revelations, humiliations, and ultimate redemption play out with a heady mirth as intoxicating as the “rum cocos” Maxi continually drinks. Dillahunt (who has appeared on HBO’s Deadwood ) is riveting as a man whose sexual prowess and proclivity are at odds with his intelligence and soul. Only Hamlet would be a match for Rev. Shannon’s tortured mirth. Campbell makes a fitting foil for Dillahunt, matching his sweating sexual contradictions with a cool, almost clinical acceptance and observations of all things human.

But it’s Hamilton who’s a revelation here. Her Maxine Faulk embodies lust. Her blue shirt tied up to expose her midriff, the buttons undone to leave her heaving cleavage to the sun, you can taste the salt of her sweat and smell the rum coco on her tongue. Her continual bantering with Shannon—“Maxine, my girl, you’re bigger than life and twice as unnatural” Shannon tells her; “a man and a woman have got to challenge each other” Maxine tells him—is like watching Lauren Bacall in her prime stalk Humphrey Bogart. Hamilton defines “acting integrity” when she straddles Shannon tied in a cotton canvas hammock, her back to the audience, yowling her anger and frustration, her buttocks bouncing up and down. While the scene creates a lot of squirming in the audience, Hamilton keeps her focus as Dillahunt’s whetstone. Hamilton never allows her celebrity to terminate her acting, and that is a refreshing revelation.

Stink, Stank, Stunk The Pilgrim Papers

By Stephen Temperley, directed by Vivian Matalon

Berkshire Theater Festival, Stockbridge, Mass., through Aug. 28

At its worst, last week’s heat was preferable to the cool air conditioning of BTF’s Unicorn Theatre, where Stephen Temperley’s The Pilgrim Papers is having its world premiere. Temperley and Matalon did a splendid job last season with Souvenir, but this time the experience is like watching a series of unrefined freshman skits linked together by a desire to parody an entity more complex than their ken.

Temperley takes various pilgrims from the Mayflower party (including Gov. Bradford and Miles Standish) and depicts their relations with Squanto and American Indians as having parallels with the present American political administration. Through obvious jokes that are aimed in scattershot fashion, Temperley attempts to address present-day concerns with religious intolerance, political hypocrisy, xenophobia and terrorist paranoia. Gay humor, caricature, adolescent wordplay. . . . None of it works either in the writing or playing of the first act, which leaves the Mayflower deflowered and one’s patience exhausted.

All that held me in thrall was R. Michael Miller’s circular set, beautifully rendered by the BTF shop crew. At intermission I made my escape, preferring the clean, acrid smell of a night-foraging skunk to that on stage.

—Ralph Hammann

Those Crazy Kids Romeo and Juliet

By William Shakespeare, directed by Will Fears

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, Mass., through Aug. 13

Any director contemplating staging Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet immediately faces two huge problems. The first is familiarity. Everyone knows Romeo and Juliet. It’s one of the most taught pieces of literature in American high schools, according to a Na-tional Endowment of the Humanities-sponsored survey of what literary works are taught in American high schools; there are popular film versions (Baz Luhr-man’s 1996 Romeo+ Juliet, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, the most egregiously popularized); Shakespeare is the most produced playwright in America, and R&J is one of his most produced plays (right behind Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, depending on the source).

Williamstown Theatre Festival tackles the familiarity problem head on: Few productions of Romeo and Juliet start out with a thumping and fuzzy-bassed four-piece band, Los Mercedes del Fuego, and their full-volume lead temptress Evita Estrella Mercedes (Lisa Birnbaum), set up on a raised platform in the middle of Verona (Takeshi Kata’s two-story, plaster-and-wrought-iron set is perfection) singing the prologue: “Two households both alike in dignity/In fair Verona, where we lay our scene . . .” Evita moans, and “lay” seems to be the operative verb here. While Luhrman’s film opened with a prologue as newscast from the fictional Verona Beach, Calif., director Will Fears’ Verona is as Italian as Tony Soprano’s New Jersey. While the sung prologue and the opening Capulets vs. Montagues gangbangers brawl seem at first blush gimmicky and over-the-top—I feared that this would be an unhealthful, overly earnest ménage a trois of The Bomb-bitty of Errors, Luhrman’s “audiences are too dumb to get it otherwise” jump-cut of a film, and Shakespearean tragedy—the concept succeeds and establishes that this is a Romeo and Juliet of this earth and of this time.

The second problem any director faces is the need for a Romeo and a Juliet who are carnal enough, immediate enough, brave enough, and beautiful enough not to be overwhelmed by Mercutio (Benjamin Walker’s robust performance is part Eddie Izzard, part Mick Jagger, part je ne sais quoi) and the Nurse (Kristine Nielsen’s performance reminds people that “earthy” means “worldly” as well as “crude”). Coupled with a fiery Tybalt (a fuming, spitting Remy Auberjonois), these three characters threaten to swamp any Romeo and Juliet, and with the sprawling, multilevel rapier-and-sword-cane fight between Tybalt and Mercutio in this Verona (Rick Sordelet’s fight choreography of the Tybalt-Mercutio fight and the following Romeo-Tybalt battery are examples of those too-rare instances where the characters fight in distinct styles suited to their temperaments, weapons, and the shifting intentions of the scenes rather than the whims of directors and the limitations of too- short rehearsal time), the title characters demand actors, not merely pretty performers.

WTF offers up a Romeo (Austin Lysy) who believably loves the fair Juliet (Met Opera and movie star Emmy Rossum; her opera and film background may account for her looking over the heads of the audience during her soliloquies to them and over Romeo’s during their love scenes and seeming to be in way over her head generally). They die a long time after the play seems to end with Mercutio’s death, but they are beautiful enough, and the concluding promise from their parents to raise up golden statues seems very appropriate, if redundant.

—James Yeara


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