Culture Project presents the world-premiere production of Tennessee Williams’s final play, In Masks Outrageous and Austere. It is almost hard to believe that this play comes from the same man to pen such classics as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire. You won’t find any naturalism here. Instead, expect the surreal, the erotic and the downright strange.
Masks is set in an undisclosed coastal location where Babe, the richest woman in the world, is being held against her will with her younger gay husband and his even younger secretary/lover. The group was kidnapped and is constantly monitored by the Gideons, a secret-service-like group reminiscent of The Matrix’s agent Smith. The group battles their own confusion and paranoia, and a nasty infestation of tent worms, in addition to each other. But they’re not alone and eventually meet their quirky opera-singing neighbor, Matron, and her mentally challenged son, Playboy. The already outrageous world spins more and more out of control as they lose their trust in each other and ultimately come to a violent end.
The scenic design by James Noone fantastically sets the stage for the disorienting world of the play. The entire theater has been transformed to envelop the audience with 360 degrees of LED screens and mirrors and a floor covered in authentic sand. Upon entering, the audience soon notices that they are being filmed, with the images projected onto the screens surrounding them. Everyone is constantly being watched, brilliantly establishing the paranoid atmosphere before the actors even take the stage.
The theme of paranoia is clear before the play begins, but nothing can be sure once the action begins. The play itself is confusing, which is no doubt purposeful. Identities are unclear, relationships are based on lies, and there’s no clear reason behind any of the events. But the plot itself is so hard to follow that greater themes and deeper meanings are hidden, if not lost completely. Needless to say, this leaves the actors with a host of challenges.
The iconic Shirley Knight, for whom Williams wrote Creve Coeur, offers an arresting, but muddled performance of Babe. Her frazzled line delivery convinces us of Babe’s constant state of inebriation. Yet the deeper meaning of her lines is often lost amongst her frantic pacing and unconventional breaks within phrases. Ms. Knight dances precariously on the line between authentic drunken antics and a simple case of forgetting her lines.
The majority of the cast rises to the challenge, however. Alison Fraser as Matron is a delight, fully embracing the ridiculousness of her character with over-the-top body language and a hilariously affected voice. Connor Buckley as Playboy is also noteworthy. Even without lines, his intensity and commitment make it impossible to look away from him. The group of Gideons, including Ward Horton, Scot Charles Anderson and Kaolin Bass, are equally intense, excelling in moments of precise choreography and otherworldly stares.
It’s clear why Masks is only now achieving its world premiere, and it doesn’t compare to the greatness of Tennessee Williams’s early plays. But the themes of corporate greed, materialism and paranoia are just as timely now as when Williams was writing, and the experience delivered by Culture Project is haunting. It’s an adventure worth taking.
In Masks Outrageous and Austere; Written by Tennessee Williams; Directed by David Schweizer; Culture Project at 45 Bleecker, 45 Bleecker Street, at Lafayette Street, East Village; (866) 811-4111, cultureproject.org.