Miss Rose: A Cabaret Play
The Marigny Opera House (this performance relocated to the New Marigny Theatre)
When we arrive, we are given two programs, “One that the company made and one that Miss Rose made.” The latter is a primitive-looking single sheet, headed ‘The Tarrytown Care Center Presents: Rose’s Turn’.
This is the cabaret within the play, a ‘turn’ of songs and stories performed by the character of Rose Williams. In real life, Rose was the sister of Tom ‘Tennessee’ Williams, who was institutionalized for her entire life after a failed lobotomy. Reportedly a real-life inspiration to Mr Williams (certainly for some of his most famous characters - e.g. Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie), in this world, she is an entertainer, just looking to express herself and put on a show for her baby brother’s birthday, despite her circumstances.
It’s a simple but immersive set, and we ourselves play the part of an audience (her fellow patients?) that don’t show up, but are imagined. A sad table of refreshments languishes expectantly in the corner. A pianist (music director Audrey Smith) accompanies the songs, and a nurse (assistant director Alston Brown) conducts, directs and sometimes participates in the skits.
Set over a series of visits, the opening has an agitated Tennessee seemingly there just to get away from production woes on his new play. She makes fun of him, playfully calling him ‘Idaho’, and attempting to both delight and goad him with family memories and shared experiences that veer between wholesome and traumatic. This is a pattern that repeats itself, the siblings often caught in cycles of euphoric reminiscing and raw confrontation.
Rebecca Gibel plays Rose with a fierce dexterity and charisma, flitting between ebullient dramatics and erratic psychosis. Songs are played for laughs as well as sympathies, scenes and games from their childhoods evoke joy and trauma in equal measure. Gibel has a wonderful voice and timing, which might not ring completely true, but the cabaret itself can’t be too amateurish or it would be a challenge to sit through. In short: she and the direction strike a great balance and Gibel is impressively fearless and completely entertaining.
Leicester Landon plays Tennessee/Tom with a louche touch, at once coy and outrageous, with many a bon mot, served awash with sultry, southern allure. Landon’s physicality, sometimes brooding, sometimes camp, but always dynamic, is a very strong aspect of his acting. He carries a comically surreal scene equating creative and literal constipation with hilarious aplomb, and rolls with the verbal jabs that he and Rose - like most brothers and sisters - use to lift and belittle each other with equal effect.
The visits bounce between elation and despair, Rose wrestling with her social and romantic solitude is as visceral as Tom confronting his sexuality in an unforgiving time (one that sadly has unwelcome modern-day relevance). The play presents the discrete sessions as one continuous play in Rose’s mind, meaning that the coherence is never lost, though a couple of very minor trims would make for a leaner, more punchy last half hour in this layman’s opinion.
Writer-directors Kenny Prestininzi and Christopher Winslow have a debut that they can be very proud of, though. Gibel and Landon have an engaging chemistry, and the framing is a compelling way into the exploration of this complicated, but fundamentally loving relationship. Kudos also to Audrey Smith and Alston Brown, who help finesse the world on stage with their musical and theatrical flourishes. With any luck, this production will return for next year’s Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival - I’ll definitely be there to see it again if that happens.
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