For those of us who love Tennessee Williams for his early and later work, Christmas has come early this year. As soon as I learned that renowned avant-garde artists Mink Stole and Penny Arcade were going to star in the late Williams play The Mutilated, I wanted to know everything there was to know about this project. After a successful run in Provincetown for the Tennessee Williams Festival, the show is running through December 1 at the New Ohio Theater. On an October morning I sat down with director Cosmin Chivu in his Pace University office to find out more about this exciting project.
Bess Rowen: We’re here to talk about Tennessee Williams’s The Mutilated. Most people have heard of plays like The Glass Menagerie, which is playing on Broadway right now, but this is one of Williams’s later plays. Can you tell me why you chose this particular piece?
Cosmin Chivu: First of all, I’m not the only one who chose this piece. It was a collective decision. In 2007 I directed my first late Tennessee Williams play, The Remarkable Rooming House of Madame Le Monde. We did it at La Mama with Pace students, and that’s how I met Thomas Keith and Annette Saddik and a number of Tennessee Williams scholars. They recognized that, although we didn’t have the right budget to make things happen the way they’re supposed to, with the number of hooks and all that, we like to think that we captured the world of the play.
Thomas Keith approached me to direct for the upcoming festival that was supposed to come up in the fall of 2011. He asked me to look at Something Cloudy, Something Clear. Several months later, on the Provincetown beach, in a huge tent only about nine, ten feet away from the water, the Tony nominated actor Lou Liberatore was leading a group of wonderful actors. And I was the director of that production. It was a magical experience. I didn’t know much about the festival; I didn’t know much about the late work, but all of a sudden that was my second piece of late work.
Right after the success of Something Cloudy, Something Clear, I remember a conversation between Thomas Keith and David Kaplan about pairing Mink Stole, who went to the festival that year in 2011, with Penny Arcade, who was always passionate about the work of Tennessee Williams but never had the opportunity to perform. I started to observe her work, and I realized that one of the greatest plays for the two of them would be The Mutilated. These two actresses would be just perfect for these parts, they were born to do these two parts.
Strangely enough—or luckily! I don’t know how to say it—they were available. And for a year and a half we entertained the idea until February of this year when we decided we should have a first reading. I brought them together with a group of much younger actors and we had a first read of the play. That confirmed our impulse and we one hundred percent realized that these two women could definitely do a wonderful job. Seeing their excitement, their commitment, and their response to the material struck something very important. My response was that we have to do this no matter what it takes. We also thought that we could bring justice to a play that has been considered the ugly sister of The Gnädiges Fräulein.
Bess: I was going to ask you to say a little bit more about that connection and how you see that connection happening. On the surface the plays don’t seem like a natural pair, necessarily.
Cosmin: Well, we know that both were paired in 1966 on Broadway, and I do believe that stylistically they have a lot in common. However, The Gnädiges Fräulein had a life after that first Broadway run, and The Mutilated was pushed aside. I never understood why, because they’re both extremely compelling stories. And they’re both dealing with the greatest part of the human soul and also what’s not so great about being a human. Of course, one lives more in realism—the other one is more of an absurd story—but I do believe that stylistically they could live in the same world.
Bess: There’s an interesting movement happening right now, not only with The Glass Menagerie on Broadway right now, but also The Two-Character Play got revived. That’s one that’s not usually done, but it’s having a successful Off-Broadway run. So I want to ask you a larger question: why these plays now? Why do you think these later plays are coming back? We all know they weren’t critically well received when they first came out. People, especially outside of the theatre, don’t even know that Williams wrote plays other than the big three plays everybody knows. So why have these plays come back?
Cosmin: I think he was ahead of his audience by about thirty, forty years. And I think the audience at that point wasn’t ready to hear the true story of who he was and what he was interested in saying. I do believe that later on he concentrated on the work that he felt was important and immediate to who he was as a human being and a citizen of this planet. That’s pretty clear in all his [play]writing and also his memoir.
The fact that the audience wasn’t ready to meet that side of Tennessee Williams, in many ways, was a positive thing, because right now we have a chance to rediscover and to see that his work was multi-faceted. It wasn’t just one thing. Yes, we do love the early plays. We grew up with them and we understand that it was a lot of wonderful talent and energy that he put into that kind of stuff. But he wasn’t interested in that anymore, and he had the courage to say, “this is not what I would like to tell the world next; this is what I’m interested in.”
I think we as a global identity are evolving and finally recognizing that aspect. His late work is, in many ways, much more universal than his early work. In his early work people say, “oh, he’s telling an American story.” I do believe in the late work—and that’s why as I European director I connect more with his late work—I recognize and I can identify more with his problems, with his issues, with his characters. They are much more universal than those of his early work. And again I think we see the life that people didn’t see forty or fifty years ago.
The older he got, the more experimental—what we call “experimental” in America—he became. He was in sync, I would say, with what was happening in Europe in the late 60s, 70s, and early 80s. That kind of work was very much alive in Europe at that point, and he connected to that, and that’s wonderful.
Bess: Absolutely. I think that’s especially interesting because of the important connection you point out to the experimental art happening other places—but also, I think Williams was wanting to be a part of the burgeoning downtown scene in New York. That’s why it’s so wonderful that you have Penny Arcade and Mink Stole—names that obviously evoke a very specific aesthetic and a connection to an artistic experimentation. Can you talk about those choices in terms of the experimental aspects of this play and how those performers specifically fit into this project?
Cosmin: First of all, we came from three very different worlds. Mink Stole was part of the John Waters movement in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Penny Arcade came to New York at a very early age, and she worked with a number of experimental directors when New York was celebrating pretty much Broadway and Off-Broadway at that point. She also worked with Andy Warhol and a number of other artists, some of whom became more mainstream, but most of them stayed in that experimental, progressive area. The fact that these two women never worked together shocked me. Because in my world they’re very similar. The two of them never connected, somehow they had never faced each other until the beginning of this year, when we had the first read.
What I also consider important is that they understand the world that Tennessee Williams was talking about. They had access to that kind of world. The Lower East Side, for many years, was very similar to what we see in the 30s in New Orleans. Penny Arcade has been a champion of this kind of people, she knows who they are; she’s lived with them; she performs for them. Mink Stole on the other hand, through the work she did—and also through what she’s been experiencing, first in Baltimore and then on the West Coast, then back in Baltimore—she understands. They are so familiar with the world of this play, which is so important, because if we don’t understand and if we don’t feel it, if we don’t smell it, if we are not there mentally, psychologically, if we don’t use our imaginations to sink into that world, it would be very hard for the story to come to life.
Bess: We’ve been talking a lot about Williams in theory and how that fits into a production, but what about in practice? You and I are both in academia, of course, but it’s also important to do the work as well. What was your experience of people embodying this play—not just the two leads, but the other characters in this play— what did they learn from doing this piece? Not reading it, not talking about it, but actually doing it?
Cosmin: What I think they learned and what we learned together is that Tennessee Williams writes music, he doesn’t write plays. And I do believe this play is a symphony. Or, as the music director likes to call it, an opera. He saw it as an opera; I saw it as a symphony, with its own particular rhythms. And whoever wasn’t ready to hit the rhythm and to stay on the beat had a hard time adjusting to the character. When that happened, things started to take care of themselves, because the language comes out in a very beautiful way and a clear way when you finally understand the beat of the language. It’s storytelling through music, and he writes music using words.
The music [in the production] plays a huge part in The Mutilated and it is an integral part of our production. The play takes place in New Orleans on Christmas Eve and opens with a group of carolers setting up the story for the audience. This group of carolers reappears and they sing carols throughout the play, throughout the story, but these carols are very special carols with words by Williams. This chorus has the function of a Greek chorus, pretty much, because they push the story forward. In fact, if you look at the play, they all sing throughout the play, one way or another. Even the two main characters find a place to sing somewhere. The score basically supports and expands the rhythms that the playwright combines. It’s a little bit of volleyball with styles in this play, but we do want to see it as a 1930s event.
Bess: What do you want people to know about this production. What is this production to you?
Cosmin: There is a story to be told, and it’s a very interesting story. In many ways it’s universal, because we’ve all been through what these two women/friends, go through from the beginning to the end of the play. We’ve all had breakups and comebacks, we’ve all been hurt and healed in relationships, and I do believe it’s an important story to be told. I lot of people are, I wouldn’t say shocked, but I would say surprised by the fact that they didn’t know this play. And what I would say that if you like Tennessee Williams, and if you appreciate his work, give this play a chance. See it, because you might like it. In fact, you might like it a lot. My role as a director is to bring this story to life in a very clean, clear fashion in a way that celebrates what he wanted to do with this story—not just during his lifetime, but the way he saw it forty or fifty years later. I think people will have a wonderful surprise discovering this 1930s story, set when the swing era was ending and New Orleans was home to a new jazz style that united people of all colors. I think this is a story that reinforces that human spirit where we again understand that we’re all one—we all come from the same source and we go there as well, with a lot of laughter and tears, hopefully.