An orchestra of marimbas playing “Down in Mexico, Joyous Mexico” ... Drinking Rum Cocos on the verandah of the Hotel Costa Verde, while below, the patrona’s nightswimming with the local boys, and that big lizard’s chafing at the end of his rope, and a hurricane’s brewing up ...
It’s the scene for Tennessee Williams’ Night of the Iguana, put on by Actors Ensemble of Berkeley in Live Oak Theatre.
It’s tough being the Reverend Shannon—and he’d be the first to admit it—chased by the freshly widowed patrona, chased by the “child musical prodigy” along for the ride with the Texas Baptist schoolmarms on the tour bus he’s guiding, chased by Miss Fellows, implacable ombudswoman for the vacationing ladies ... and chased by “the spooks,” or Blue Meanies or whatever, the personal Eumenides that have tracked this ex- minister since he was locked out of his Virginia church on a false charge of “atheistical sermons.” Who ever had it like this? And all in a tropical paradise? Not since Gauguin ...
Mexico as the gringo’s devil in paradise spawned a few other literary mementos of the same vintage as Tennessee’s, which is set in 1940 near Acapulco, but was first staged in the early ‘60s. Williams’ original is practically the only stage rendition of note that comes to mind, capturing a lingering note from The Summer House, sole play by Jane Bowles, wife of Paul.
At the Costa Verde, Shannon’s the Alpha—or is it Omega?—male, fending off all female comers. The other men are factotums, mere tourists, other tour guides, or the vague, conversational ghost of his old friend, the sport fisherman who owned the hotel, and listened to the erstwhile holy man’s tales of woe when the mood hit, while maintaining a menage of silence with his wife. “Why do you always come here to crack up?” queries the reasonable widow. “It’s the hammock, Maxine, the hammock by the rain forest.”
But trundling out of the blue, shoving a wheelchair, comes Shannon’s match in the spinsterish shape of the globetrotting granddaughter of “the oldest living practicing poet,” who doesn’t pursue him, but tells him of small acts of love, instead, like the evening in a sampan with the fat, bald and fetishistic shy Australian woman’s undergarment salesman.
Most of these creatures are at that end of their tether, just like the iguana—except the tourists. At least, they say as much—and admit they’re hustlers.
Laura Jane Bailey plays Maxine coarse, loud and down-to-earth. Miss Fellows (who’s at the end of her patience, not tether) is the no-nonsense schoolmarm non plus ultra in Virginia Handley’s characterization. Handley also seems to have some real fun alternating as one of the German tourist gargoyles-in-shades, strutting and singing Nature and imperialist songs, or listening, anachronistically, to the Fuhrer’s Reichstag speech on a transistor radio.
This goes especially ditto for her complement, Richard Dorn, splendidly overbearing as the boisterous Nazi holidayer, but all business when playing Jake, who comes to replace Shannon at the helm of the tour bus. Katie Krueger is a frantic child music prodigy, frank and precocious in her approach to the collarless minister.
The best turn of all is Margery Bailey as Hannah, Shannon’s “stand-up Buddha,” a self-possessed, prepossessing performance, like the one her character puts in, arriving penniless, with a declaiming, “97-year-young” moribund poet (ably played, or posed, recited—and whined, by Lewis Campbell). Having to act as foil, or counterfoil, to all these over-the-top monsters of ego and want is a tough job, and Bailey does it with poise and characterization as finely shaded as Hannah’s charcoal sketch portraits, hawked to the tourists.
Jeff Bell cuts a fine figure as bedevilled Shannon, and communicates the irrepressible seediness of a minister-on-the-skids at moments, but doesn’t convey the necessary gravity with the skid that makes Hannah exclaim, “when somebody I respect acts like a small, cruel boy ...” or another remark, “You’re still indulging yourself in your Passion Play performance ... another bit of voluptuous self-crucifixion!” This makes him seem to saw the air, getting loud a bit too often like a frantic Lear trying to outshout the storm.
Others rush the lines, too, and some of the blocking (and the tussle between Shannon and Maxine) comes off awkwardly. It’s a long play and a temptation to speed it up might be present, but director Eddie Kurtz, an artistic assistant at The Rep, may be responsible for some of these slips, which lose Williams’ syncopated rhythms that slip on a comic banana peel as the masks fall off of even the most seemingly dignified.
Rose Anne Raphael’s set places the action well, if maybe a little less crumby than the casa should be—a recurrent fault in recent Williams revivals. Tennessee’s is still a great play to go see, unless you’re booked in for Puerto Vallarta or Cabo ... after the show, you may just rush home to cancel.
NIGHT OF THE IGUANA
8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through Aug. 12. $12. Live Oak Theatre,
1301 Shattuck Ave. 649-5999.