Tennessee Speaks in Tongues for You (Or the 3 1/2-Character Play)

Rhinoceros Theater Festival

The narrator of Tennessee Williams’s A Glass Menagerie famously promises to deliver truth comfortably wrapped in illusion. But in this play about Williams by New Orleans-based R.J. Tsarov, the narrator makes no such promises–if anything, Tsarov’s method of delivering truths is more disturbing than the observations themselves, which tend to be on Williams’s usual subjects: the ephemeral nature of the world and the fragility of the human psyche.

The play opens with a long monologue by the narrator-playwright–a witty comic send-up of the alcohol- and drug-addled Williams of the late 70s and early 80s, a paranoid, tantrum-prone celebrity who turned on friends and snarled at lecture audiences. (Rick Lazarus does a superb job conveying Williams’s declining genius and chemically induced breakdown.) Then comes Tsarov’s sucker punch: we learn that for a year Williams has been infected by a parasite with the power to control his thoughts, feelings, and speech. He explains that it’s a mutation of the isopod Cymothoa exigua, which consumes and replaces the tongue of the spotted rose snapper; once the tongue is gone, the parasite lives off bits of food that enter the fish’s mouth.

In the wrong hands this provocative premise could become a second-rate Twilight Zone episode. But director John McNaughton (who also directed the films Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Wild Things) is an old hand at twisty material. And Tsarov quickly makes it clear that we’re in a much odder, more dangerous world than Twilight Zone. Stealing a page from William S. Burroughs (another drug-using gay writer from Saint Louis), he wrings every paranoid interpretation he can out of his dictator parasite, making it at once a literal alien presence, a metaphor for artistic creation, and an expression of anxiety about our bodies not doing what we want them to.

The two other characters in Tennessee Speaks in Tongues for You are an abnormally close brother and sister on the lam–perhaps refugees from a Williams play. Meanwhile the parasite is forcing Williams to write a play about three and a half characters: a famous playwright and two kids running from the law–presumably the parasite itself is the half character. They’re all hiding in a public-housing high-rise that’s slowly being demolished; each day the explosions come closer, and the brother and sister are considering killing the playwright for his food. Eventually the sister reads from the playwright’s (or the parasite’s) new play and discovers that it’s the same, word for word, as the interaction she’s just had with her brother. It’s never clear, however, whether he’s transcribing their talk–or dictating it.

Tsarov’s Gordian knot of a script makes for a rich postmodern evening of puzzles, one of them being who was the real Tennessee Williams? The Williams character here resembles the historical writer, with his addictions to booze, drugs, and sex. But of course the historical Tennessee was partly a fabrication intended to hide the quiet, unflamboyant, sad Tom Williams (Williams’s given name). Certainly the playwright becomes more sympathetic as we see how much he’s at the mercy of his parasite and the two kids.

McNaughton makes the Pirandellian plot, questions within questions, and unresolved feelings and yearnings echo in our heads and hearts. And Lazarus, Alexandra Blatt, and Nick Leininger all perform with an intensity and commitment that make even the most preposterous elements of Tsarov’s story believable.

WHEN Through 10/28: Sat 9:30 PM

WHERE Prop Thtr, 3502-4 N. Elston

PRICE $15 or “pay what you can”

INFO 773-539-7838

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kristin Basta.