Created by The Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival, the environmental and fully immersive The Hotel Plays was, from a logistically standpoint, one of the most harmonized theatrical productions I have ever seen in New Orleans.
A number of local companies have taken a run at just this sort of Punchdrunk you-are-in-it approach, but none have even come close to what the two Williams’ festivals and The Herman-Grima House pulled off.
Of course, part of that success was from the obvious time that co-directors Jeff Hall-Flavin and David Kaplan took in creating not only the individual theatrical vignettes but also the overall flow of traffic.
Unlike, a number of home-grown attempts in time’s past that simply thought the location would be enough, The Hotel Plays seemed to operate under the assumption that a traffic jam could happen at anytime or that a delay could derail the proceedings. Because they proceed with that sort of paranoid caution, neither disaster occurred.
Using not only their snap-to-it stage managers but also the cast itself, the two directors ingeniously moved theatrical patrons throughout The Hermann-Grima’s stairwells, lobby and rooms.
Three separate groups were given different color-coded hotel keys, and a unique guide takes you to the four one-acts Green Eyes, The Traveling Companion, Mister Paradise and Our Lady of Larkspur Lotion in a different sequence.
Through the walls, you heard the lamenting of broken poet Paradise played with fading heartbreak by David Landon in one room and the unnerving mewling of Jeremy Lawrence as an affection-starved writer trying to manipulate sexually-inaccessible manipulator Matt Story in another.
After awhile, you forgot you were being led, herded, or steered. You simply moved throughout the fictional hotel, sometimes actually chasing Kathryn Talbot’s desperate Lady of Larkspur Lotion up a stairwell, until you returned to the exit lobby for a clever final curtain.
This is not to say its amenities are perfect. Accents came and went, performances ranged from the great to the simply solid, and the production’s handlers came up short accommodating more physically challenged patrons.
But rather than an accumulation of missteps unravelling the effort, the exact opposite occurred.
The overall experience built a momentum that bowdlerized the production’s bumpy sections. Actors like the New-Orleans-accent-spot-on Desiree Ledet held character while functioning as guides, languid blonde Beth Bartley with a singing voice right out of To Have and Have Not haunted the halls, a bellboy checked on our well being while delivering continental breakfast to enraged lovers Jami Paige and Matt Rein, and doors sprung open to reveal the idealistic eyes of Francesca McKenzie as a young Bryn Mawr student.
On and on it went. The combination of built in sound and the aural reality of the actual French Quarter permeated the proceedings, audience placement was always from the most advantageous angle, and the breaks were designed just long enough to catch your breath.
In many ways, the experience was this year’s festival’s commitment to theatre in microcosm. It was a wildly ambitious, riverboat gambler approach. After years of timidity, The Tennessee Williams’ Festival seemed to push all its chips in on that bet that Williams’ is, perhaps, the greatest of all American dramatists and productions of his plays should be front-and-center.
As a lover primarily of theatre, it was the first year I felt fully welcomed to the festival.
Thank you, you gave us our playwright back.