Review of And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens at Yale Cabaret
First-year Yale School of Drama director Rory Pelsue and first-year actor Patrick Madden offer stunning Yale Cabaret debuts with Tennessee Williams’ one act And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens, a title that riffs off Shakespeare’s Richard II and, by the time it shows up as a line in the play, attempts to add levity. Which is worth noting because, though this is a sad story, it isn’t, finally, a tragedy.
Candy (Patrick Madden) is a drag queen when at home, but when we first meet her, in the midst of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, she is a he, playing host, in a rather “out” manner, to an ostensibly straight sailor, Karl (Jamie Bogyo), who seems ill-at-ease with the implications of fraternizing with Candy, even as he seems transfixed by his host’s charm and charisma.
Madden’s assured performance luxuriates in Candy’s fascination; something of a figment of her own fantasy, she is also very much a familiar figure from Williams’ subsequent plays. It’s long been my contention that Streetcar should be staged with a drag queen or transgendered actress as Blanche, and Candy in many ways anticipates such casting, making us see the drag queen at the heart of many of Williams’ female characters. Which is not to say that Williams or Madden or Pelsue are content with “female impersonation.” The subtlety of Candy’s demeanor is the point; it’s a performance of a character whose reality is an achieved performance.
Even when she gets ruthless with an apparently well-meaning gay couple who rent from her, Candy’s bitchiness indicates Williams knowing sense of how someone like Candy survives. Successful as an interior decorator, Candy—in a play written in 1957—is fully cognizant of the influence and fascination of queer culture for straight America, which, she says, would be “barbarian” without queens.
An indication of her taste is her apartment, which co-scenic designers Lucie Dawkins and Sarah Nietfeld drench in a florid Japonisme that lets us know at once that Candy identifies with aesthetes of the previous century, such as James McNeill Whistler. But the ersatz Japanese theme, c. 1950, would also be perfect for a boudoir intended to lure service-men, like Karl, whose sense of what “decadence” means would come from “the East.” Perhaps it should suffice to say that Japonisme in New Orleans’ French Quarter immediately characterizes Candy as decadence redux.
The question hovering over Candy’s passive-aggressive seduction of Karl is how much of a barbarian is he. And Williams—per usual—gets dramatic mileage out of the punishment that straight society seems all-too-glad to dole out to its “deviants.” Karl, in Bogyo’s nicely laconic performance, is a user and a bully who, occasionally—and Candy wants to believe in it as a saving grace—seems willing to play his role in Candy’s protracted fantasy. The audience looks on aghast, knowing this has to end badly. And Alvin (Steven Lee Johnson) and Jerry (Josh Wilder) from downstairs know so too. As a one-act, the foregone conclusion doesn’t hurt—we’re uncertain how bad it is going to get and can be relieved that things don’t get worse.
The anxiety we feel for Candy is very much the main take-away here, as her previous life with her “husband,” a sheltering “sponsor,” has made her too secure, financially, and too insecure, emotionally, to register fully the threat that lurks in manipulating someone like Karl. In our day, with a public more aware of the transgendered and of the fatalities, from violence and suicide, that indict straight culture, we might wonder what Williams’ play, had it been produced during the playwright’s very successful run of plays in the 1950s, might have done to create more awareness and understanding. Not much, probably, since the queer themes in Williams’ best-known plays tended to be minimized for mass consumption, such as in Hollywood movies. And that’s why seeing Candy on stage now is both timely and telling. Bravo!
And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens
By Tennessee Williams
Directed by Rory Pelsue
Dramaturg: Catherine María Rodriguez; Co-Scenic Designers: Lucie Dawkins, Sarah Nietfeld; Costume Designer: Cole McCarty; Lighting Designer: Krista Smith; Sound Designer: Frederick Kennedy; Scenic Charge: Dan Cogan; Stage Manager: Sarah Thompson; Co-Producers: Al Heartley, Rachel Shuey
March 3-5, 2016