Sheila Balter and Ryan Tasker are taking Two on a Party on the road to France for the annual Word for Word Tour de France. Photo by Mark Leialoha.
I loved it before and I love it even more now.
About a year ago, Word for Word and Theatre Rhinoceros joined forces for an evening of three shorts stories by gay writers adapted for the stage (in true Word for Word fashion, not a letter of the original text is changed). That production was a tremendous example of the Word for Word art – taking what’s great on the page and making it even greater on the stage. (Read my original review.)
Continuing the Word for Word tradition of taking shows to the American Libraries in France, Two for the Road, the Tennessee Williams story from the Rhino collaboration, is heading across the seas. But before the tour began, Word for Word decided to leave us with a taste of the show’s brilliance. On Saturday and Sunday at the thrilling new Z Space at Theater Artaud performance venue, we once again got to experience Williams’ sterling prose as he followed the lives and (sort of) loves of Billy and Cora, a gay man and a straight woman trawling the Eastern Seaboard for men and booze.
Director John Fisher’s ingenious production is, if anything, even sharper than it was a year ago, and the characters seem more deeply felt and poignant. In many ways, this is a tale as debauched as any tale ever was with its constant stream of sailors and simulated sex and rough trade and martinis from a Thermos. But Williams is far too skilled a writer to let this story be lurid or sensational. Billy and Cora are dimensional human beings, and as such, their interconnected stories are tender and sweet – even full of kindness.
Most of the original cast returns, which is a great thing. Ryan Tasker is note perfect as Billy, the Williams-esque writer who doesn’t always make wise choices in men. Most of those men are played by Brendan Godfrey, who is convincing as a nellie hotel clerk or a brooding motorcycle man. New to the cast is Jeri Lynn Cohen, who trills “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” and makes a convincing barfly and sailor.
Sheila Balter was in the original cast but in the ensemble role now filled by Cohen. Balter is now Cora (originally played by the marvelous JoAnne Winter), and she makes the role her own. There’s an abundance of blousy, boozy warmth in Balter’s performance, and she and Tasker have sparkling chemistry.
So many moments resonate in this 70-minute story, but for me, this time out, I’ll always remember the four cast members clutching one another as Williams talks about why people are drawn to bars and to tricks – if just to be briefly connected and momentarily not alone. The words are simple but the image, which begins as sort of an orgiastic joke, becomes charged with power.
Audiences in France are in for a treat, but then again, this is Word for Word – they’ve been supplying France with flashes of genius for more than a decade now.
The other big news of the evening was that in the fall, Word for Word’s next production will be several chapters from Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge. If you’ve read that particular book – sort of a novel in short stories – you know how exciting that is. The only problem for me would be how to choose one story over another.
For information about this and about Word for Word’s annual benefit dinner (featuring a performance from Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate followed by a feast inspired by that book), visit www.zspace.org.