by Lee Roscoe
Tennessee Williams by way of Brechtian cabaret is what Dennis Monn, director of the upcoming production of Williams’s Vieux Carré at the 17th Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival says is his “bohemian, queer” style.
Set in the 1930s when Williams began to write it and completed by him much later in his life near the end of his career, Vieux Carré, literally the old square in French, is the French Quarter in New Orleans. Performed in 2014 at the Festival, this production is a wholly new and different take.
“It kind of takes off where Glass Menagerie leaves off; it’s very autobiographical,” says Monn. “It’s about the characters which The Writer (Williams) experiences staying at a boarding house in Toulouse Street. It’s a play about loneliness. It’s a ghost play,” but not depressing, Monn says. Rather, he says, there’s a lot of “madness and fun and joy in the decay on the way to the waning life of the characters.”
The play will be staged at the Crown and Anchor in Provincetown, and Monn says “the play tells you where you are at. I don’t need a three-story set with stairs and furniture” to evoke a 1970s disco feel and make the work “capture the spirit of the piece for modern woke audiences of all ages and backgrounds.”
Placing the characters on a huge wooden reconstruction of a vinyl LP in the middle of the room the action will surround and immerse the audience, accompanied by dancing and music of Sidney Bechet, ABBA, and the Bee Gees, performed live by New Orleans musicians.
Giving monologues in the middle of this record, like figurines in a snow globe placed on a pedestal, with a dreamy “floaty” feel, nonetheless the characters are true to life. Reviewers have called the characters caricatures, but Monn says, “I hate that. They are real people. Williams meant them as an homage to all the Blanches and Stanleys and himself.” Monn calls them a “menagerie” of his own vivid experiences when he first came to New Orleans “living in a squat shared with a woman who was later murdered, a psychic who was a sex worker on the side, a vampire who slept in a mother f–king coffin, and a South African mime above me who never shut up. Vieux Carré was mild compared to what I was seeing. I have a personal connection to this play for sure.”
Monn brings the originality of a self-taught artist to his work. Growing up working-class in a small western Illinois coal-mining town, his first theater experiences, if you will, were two local honky-tonks, Mary’s Dog House and Miss Kitty’s, which had live bands and street fights, and were the only places open past 2 a.m. in the 1980s. In the middle of a cornfield, at the local Fulton County Playhouse, founded by a wealthy farmer’s wife, his mother and aunts, home health care workers who also did housekeeping, would clean the theater to get it ready for the season. He went to rehearsals and started appearing onstage when he was a kid in Annie Get Your Gun. He saw Glass Menagerie there, his teacher played Amanda, and he was hooked, checking out Williams’ plays, short stories and memoirs, telling himself “I’m moving to New Orleans!”
He did for a while at 17, then permanently at 22. After playing the beatnik role, “I Jack Kerouac-ed it for a while.”
He was not part of mainstream theater but discovered a small company called Cowpokes that did LGBTQ productions where his first appearance onstage was nude, and in the lobby they were having Boots and Boxers Night. “This is not f–kin’ Broadway,” he said to himself. Eventually, he founded a cabaret/theater, the Always Lounge. Instead of appealing to the “300 people” who go to theater in New Orleans, he set his sights on attracting tourists and managed to make a financial success. He sold the Lounge before Covid, but still created productions with the community of artists he had helped put together.
When he says, “queer and bohemian” (I don’t know any other style, he quips), he means “you don’t have it and you don’t need to spend thousands and thousands of dollars to make art, make something entertaining—and my working-class background won’t allow me to spend a fortune on a play. The bohemian style has a network of artist that don’t really fall into the capitalist model of living and our lives are more intertwined—you get what you need in life by just having a community.”
It’s these compadres he brings to Vieux Carré’s ensemble. They came last year to the Festival with Monn’s version of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s famous Mahagonny. Monn says Brecht’s own granddaughter saw Mahagonny in New Orleans and said it was just the way it should be. Jessica Lange came to Vieux Carré and said Williams would have been really happy with it. To have the “respect of scholars and academics,” such as David Kaplan, curator and co-founder of the Festival, who asked Monn to contribute to it, makes Monn happy, too, though he still wants his work to “be appreciated by my grandmother and her seventh-grade education.”
Brecht is known for breaking the fourth wall in his plays, and Monn says, “I never had fourth wall. For me proscenium is a gray space. Brecht is a kindred spirit as is Williams. If they were alive we would be hanging out together.”
Vieux Carré will be performed as part of the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival at various times Thursday, September 22 – Sunday, September 25, at the Crown & Anchor, 247 Commercial St., Provincetown. For tickets ($50) and information about this and other shows in the Festival visit twptown.org.