Small Craft Warnings

A review of Tennessee Williams’ Play

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Radio Voice: “Heavy seas from Point Conception south to the Mexican Border, fog continuing till tomorrow noon, extreme caution should be observed on all highways along this section of the coastline.”

The play, Small Craft Warnings, written by Tennessee Williams, was presented off Broadway at the Truck and Warehouse Theater in the spring of 1972. It takes place in a bar called Monk’s Place, somewhere along the southern coast of California. This bar provides a place of refuge for vulnerable human vessels, people living on the edge of humanity.

When Mr. Williams was asked in an interview if he thought it is right to put his persona into his work he replied, “What else can I do?”

This is not one of Tennessee Williams’ greater works, but rather a smaller crafted one. One that I have always been drawn to for one reason or another. What has recently put it in mind was a trip I took to Mexico. I posted a picture of Lake Chapala one day when the wind was blowing and the water was choppy. I called the picture Small Craft Warnings after the play. It just popped into my head. Then I got to thinking about the play and pulled it down from the shelf and decided to give it a reread.

I had a couple of friends over one afternoon and out of a fit of boredom we decided to act out some of the roles there in my living room. And finally, I was browsing through some YouTube videos one night and I ran across a video of Tennessee Williams being interviewed by Dick Cavett. The interview was billed as Tennessee Williams talks about Marlon Brando. Well, that looked interesting, so I decided to give it a look. He wasn’t talking about Marlon Brando at all. He was talking about Small Craft Warnings, his new play which just opened at The Truck and Warehouse Theater in New York. Boom! Another dot to be connected and another ball falls into a slot. I felt a need to write about it.

So, I gave the play another read and I just wanted to share a condensed version of it. There are nine characters. Each of the principle characters gets a moment alone in their own special light for their own special soliloquy.

When the curtain rises, we hear the sound of ocean wind. The stage is lighted very dim. Monk, the owner, is behind the bar serving Doc. Doc has lost his license to practice medicine for heavy drinking, but he continues to practice somewhat on the sly. Both are middle aged.

Downstage, sitting at a table, is Violet with a battered old suitcase sitting by her side. She has the look of a derelict. She lives in a small room with no bath over the arcade down at the end of the pier directly over the pool tables, pin ball machines and the bowling alley.

Doc says: “The solace of companionship is not the least expensive item on the shelves of the fucking super market a man of my age has to spend what’s left of his life in.”

Bill enters the bar. He is a loser putting up a bold front. By definition he is a “stud.” He has always traded on his physical endowment. He even has a name for his thing, he calls it “Junior.” He brags about not having ever done a lick of work in his life.  He is currently shacking with Leona in her trailer in a trailer park nearby. He ambles over to the table where Violet is sitting with a couple of beers in his hands and a killer smile on his lips.

Violet says: “A man like you.”

Bill says: “A man like me?”

Violet: “A bull of a man like you. You got arms on you big as the sides of a ham.”

Bill: “That aint all I got big.”

Violet: “You mean what I think?”

Bill: “If you can’t see you can feel.”

Violet reaches under the table and it is obvious that she is feeling him.

The door bursts open. Leona enters like a small bull. She is a large ungainly woman wearing white clam diggers, a pink sweater, and a sailor’s cap. She is a beautician and lives in a trailer park nearby with Bill. When she realizes what Violet is doing under the table, she raises a rhubarb.

Later Steve enters the bar. He is wearing a floral-patterned shirt under a tan jacket and the greasy white pants of a short order cook. He is looking for Violet who at this moment is screaming her head off in the Ladies.

A little while later a young man and a boy enter the bar. They walk to a table in the front. The boy, Bobby, wears jeans and a sweat shirt with the words Iowa to Mexico on it. The young man, Quentin, is dressed in a jacket, maroon slacks, and a silk scarf. Their story is Quentin picked up Bobby on the road who was riding his bicycle. He talked him into putting his bike in his car and coming along with him. Quentin had taken Bobby to his home earlier and they had a little tiff, one might say a “lover’s quarrel.” They stopped at the bar for a drink.

Doc gets a phone call. He has to go. Someone will be born tonight on Treasure Island.

Quentin and Bobby leave the bar.

Leona says: “I had an Italian boyfriend once who used to say, ‘Meglior solo que mal accompanota,’ which means that you’re better off alone than in the company of a bad companion.”

Later Doc returns. Leona starts in on him. “Back already? It didn’t take you much time to deliver the baby. Or did you bury the baby? Or did you bury the mother. Or did you bury them both, mother and baby?”

Doc: “Can’t you shut this woman up?”

Leona: “No one can shut this woman up. Quack, quack, quack, Doctor Duck, quack, quack, quack, quack, quack!”

Later, Violet is sitting a table with Monk. She drops a match box and reaches for it. And suddenly her hand is no longer on the table. She says, “It’s a pitiful thing to have to reach under a table to find some reason to live.”

There’s a commotion outside. Bill and Steve rush out the door.

Doc takes off.

Leona takes off.

Only Violet and Monk are left on stage. Monk is closing up.

Violet goes upstairs. Monk says, “I’ll bring you some beer. Don’t forget to shower.”

Monk crosses to open the door. We hear the boom of the ocean outside. “I always leave the door open for a few minutes to clear the smoke and liquor smell out of the place and the human odors and to hear the ocean.”

He hears the water running upstairs. “That ain’t rain,” he says. He starts up the steps and pauses a moment. He glances up with a smile of anticipation.

Curtain.

Another bitter irony involving this piece concerns scene where Doc delivers the baby: The baby dies, the mother dies. This actually happened in real life to my Great Grandfather, Dr. Benjamin Franklin Woolery in 1944. Was a medical doctor and was called to a woman’s home to deliver her baby. While there he had a heart attack and died. The woman was rushed to a hospital where she died and the baby died. I wrote about this story in another blog post called the Curious Case of Dr. Benjamin Franklin Woolery.

And that is the story of Small Craft Warnings. We are all in the same boat, so we have to look out after each other a little bit.

Peace out.

 

 

 

 

Antony and Cleopatra

A Review

Cleopatra

Sophie Okonedo as Cleopara

If you ever get a chance to see a production of National Theatre Live you should. The next best thing to live theatre is live telecast theatre. The play Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare is my fourth foray into this domain and it didn’t disappoint. Watching fine British actors like Ralph Fiennes who plays Mark Antony, and Sophie Okonedo  who plays Cleopatra, is a delightful pleasure like none other.

Harold Bloom, writing in his masterful work, Shakespeare – The Invention of the Human, says, “Of Shakespeare’s representation of women, Cleopatra is the most subtle and formidable.” And I would say Sophie Okenedo’s portrayal of her is by far the most superb interpretation of this magnificent creature. She is by turns moody, funny, bitchy, sexy, powerful, and above all regal. Ralph Fiennes holds his own with her as the Roman General who is in decline. Antony, like empires, is a study in decline and fall. The very hairs on his head rebel against the aging warrior. “My very hairs do mutiny; for the white reprove the brown for rashness, and they them for fear and doting.” You will see in him, one of the triple pillars of the world, transformed into a strumpet’s fool.

Ralph Fiennes

Ralph Fiennes as Mark Antony

In an interview Ralph Fiennes says of the pair, “He’s not an idealized warrior and she’s not an idealized princess. They’re full of temperament and tantrums and mood swings, and I think that combination is very moving to people.” Are Antony and Cleopatra in love? Well they certainly appeared to me to be in love. They certainly were not bored with each other.

Director Simon Godwin kept the action moving in this modern dress rendition of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Costume designer Evie Gurney created designs for Cleopatra that were not just costumes but high fashion. They had to communicate not only her physicality but project power as well. The dyes used in the fabrics were made with Sophie’s skin tone in mind so that she would exhibit a golden glow. The Saffron dress was inspired by Beyoncé’s Lemonade album. So, it is not too great a stretch to say a costume fit for Queen Bey was also fit for Queen Cleopatra.

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Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo

The set design by Hildegard Bechtler was imaginative and ingenious. It was fluent and moving as the scenes changed in a smooth fluid manner. The center stage revolved from one scene to another, actors walked off into darkness others appeared in light. It was a miracle of rare device, changing swiftly from Egypt to Rome and back again. And at one point a submarine conning tower miraculously arose from the stage floor. And in Egypt a turquoise tiled pool. This magnificent play plays superbly well when properly directed and acted. It is too large for just any stage, but London’s Olivier is just the ticket!

In the climactic scene Cleopatra asks, “Hast thou the pretty worm of Nilus there, that kills and pains not?”

The worm of Nilus in this production looked more like a giant coral snake, with vibrant colors of red, yellow and black, but I am sure it made more of a dramatic stage presentation than its colorless cousin the asp.

“Will it eat me?” She childishly asks.

“I wish you all joy of the worm,” is the answer.

When she is discovered by Octavius after the fatal bite, he says, “Cleopatra shall be buried by her Antony: No grave upon earth holds in it a pair so famous.”

This play is about war writ large, East vs West, and two flawed individuals passionately in love with each other and at times at war with each other too.