Funny Tennessee Williams. Let me repeat that: Funny Tennessee Williams. Yeah, I know…sounds unlikely. But at Artisphere, where it’s playing as half of an evening called Tennessee Continuum, The Gnädiges Fräulein turns out to be pretty damn uproarious from the moment the lights come up on a Florida Keys society columnist who’s ducking Cocaloony birds as she scrounges items for her column.
Polly (Mundy Spears) will soon note blood dripping down the front steps of a tourist dorm run by Molly (Emily Webbe). And it would be hard for her to miss half-naked Indian Joe (James Finley), or the singing, one-eyed, down-on-her-luck Fräulein (Karin Rosnizeck) of the title. But those swooping, human-sized Cocaloonies have Polly spooked for the moment. And she’ll be even more spooked when the Fräulein hears a fishing-boat come in, and rushes off to risk losing her other eye by competing for throw-away fish on the docks. You’ll gather that Williams is not working in his Streetcar Named Menagerie mode this time.
Written when the playwright was on an amphetamine jag in 1966, The Gnädiges Fräulein played less than a week on Broadway as part of an ill-received evening called Slapstick Tragedy. Though Williams likened the play to “vaudeville, burlesque and slapstick with a dash of pop art thrown in,” ’60s critics who’d grown used to the playwright in a more poetical mood decided it must be surrealist and tried to interpret the hell out of it. Couldn’t the Fräulein’s downward spiral represent that of the playwright himself—with the landlady standing in for his craven producers, the columnist for media gossips, the naked Indian for Hollywood, and the cocaloonies for critics?
Well, sure, but why squelch the laughs when you can just go with the shtick? Happily, that’s the approach taken by Jay Hardee’s antic production for the Washington Shakespeare Company. With Williams cracking wise—“I feel like a bull,” says Indian Joe, prompting a ripe “moo” from Polly—the director encourages his performers to camp up a storm. A glance at the script suggests he’s actually done much more than that, helping them find laughs in lines (“I’m too straightened out to care about any outcome except my income”) that just sit there on the page. And wait till you see how Spears and Webbe sexualize the notion of synchronizing rocking chairs.
The evening’s first half, Portrait of a Madonna, is more conventional Williams served up straight, with Annetta Dexter Sawyer fluttering and Blanche-ing as a daft, aging southern belle who thinks a gentleman caller from her youth has been climbing in her bedroom window nightly and “indulging his senses.”
If this curtain-raiser is determinedly slight, Lynn Sharp Spears’ staging makes it a decent reminder of the sort of airborne language and mannered gentility Williams will not be trafficking in after intermission. And she and her leading lady also unearth haunting hints of genuine madness as the character rails about neighbors who take “a malicious delight” in her circumstances, and enlarges a long-ago street encounter with a former beau into the sort of full-blown horror story that might well keep a randy spinster housebound and fantasizing for decades.
WSC is alternating Tennessee Continuum in repertory with Tom Stoppard’s briskly entertaining Night And Day through July 3, so for the next month or so, you can’t really go wrong at Artisphere.