In most cases, when a theater group decides to stage an American classic, it sticks to the script and tries to perform the piece as it was intended.
This is not one of those cases.
Grotesque and outrageous, “Bouffon Glass Menajoree,” the latest incarnation of Tennessee Williams’s 1944 classic, obliterates any semblance of whatever decency or moral restraint the play once had.
“Why would anyone do this to an American masterpiece?” you might ask yourself. I decided that in order to find out, I needed to go put myself in the line of fire, as it were, and join the cast.
“They’ve taken ‘The Glass Menagerie,’ arguably the most delicate and lyrical play in the American canon, and stuck a firecracker up its ass,” said Michael Gardner, artistic director of the Brick Theater in Williamsburg. “It’s wonderfully bawdy, tasteless, hammy and ugly — everything that Williams is not.”
The production makes liberal use of “bouffon,” a kind of clowning that originated among Renaissance French society’s outcasts — “ugly” people like lepers, prostitutes and heretics, many of whom were banished from their villages. A notable exception was made during holiday festivals, when the bouffons were expected to entertain society’s elite. During these performances, the bouffon’s chief aim was to mock and deride the bon ton as much as possible, using satirical means that would, on any other day, likely get them killed.
Knowing this when I arrived at the Brick Theater, a former auto body shop in the heart of Williamsburg, I had no doubt I was in the right place. There, on the sparse stage in front of me, were the very freaks I had been expecting: Tom, hunchbacked and decked out in a tube top, like Quasimodo ready for a night on the town; Amanda, with watermelon-sized bosoms and more-than-ample hips squeezed into hot pink stretch pants; and pallid, stringy-haired Laura, sickly in her tattered hospital gown (and, initially, pants underneath, which, when she saw I’d brought along a photographer, she promptly removed to display her signature diaper — oh, these vain, self-conscious actresses!).
The actors playing these beasts — Lynn Berg, Aimee German, and Audrey Crabtree, respectively — took a break from the scene they were rehearsing (synchronizing obscene hand gestures with director Eric Davis) to introduce themselves.
The production follows the same story arc as the original, despite the glaring stylistic differences. In fact, as the story played out, it became quite apparent why bouffon and this particular play make such a good match. The Wingfields, even in the original, were outcasts and freaks — losers, if you will.
Amanda, whose husband has long since left for reasons that don’t need much explanation, clings pathetically to a mythologized youth that includes record numbers of gentleman callers. Tom, who shares many characteristics in common with a young Tennessee Williams (both are writers working menial jobs in a factory), sneaks out at night and goes to “the theater,” coded language for any manner of perverted behavior, whether it be binge drinking, illicit drug use, or depraved sexual acts. And Laura — or “Blue Roses” as she fondly remembers Jim calling her because of a high school pleurosis outbreak — epitomizes the cruelty of society’s judging eye; it’s not her fault she’s crippled and painfully shy (and in this version, truly grotesque), but what man in his right mind would choose to marry her of his own free will?
In this vein, at each performance of “Bouffon Glass Menajoree,” a different — um, lucky? — guy is plucked from the audience to be poked, prodded and perverted in playing the role of Jim, the gentleman caller. “Tom, Amanda and Laura,” reads a disclaimer on the show’s Web site, “claim no responsibility for hurt feelings or offended sentiments.”
Over the course of the run-through, I was picked on mercilessly. At one point, I was coerced into awkward and mutually unsatisfying simulated phone sex with Amanda. Later, I was Tom’s drinking buddy and the butt of his jokes — after I answered his question of “How much they pay you over there at The Brooklyn Paper?” Never mind what I told him, but suffice it to say, my answer was slung back in my face so many times, it actually started to sting for real.
When they finally brought me onstage for a “date” with Laura, I was powerless to resist her diabolical machinations. Before I knew it, I was down on one knee, proposing marriage. Maybe it was the guilt I felt because of breaking the poor girl’s unicorn, the centerpiece of her collection of glass figurines. Maybe I just felt sorry for her because she seemed so pathetically unlovable. In any case, the actors had caught me in their web, and there was nothing I could do. I was one of them. And it felt like … home.
“Bouffon Glass Menajoree” will run at the Brick Theater (575 Metropolitan Ave. between Lorimer Street and Union Avenue in Williamsburg) through March 24. Tickets are $10. For information, call (212) 352-3101 or visit www.bouffonglassmena….