One of the ways that the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival brings Williams into sharper focus is through the lens of other writers. Since, for the sheer beauty of his language, Williams is often referred to as the American Shakespeare, it’s fitting that the 12th annual festival, which runs Sept. 21-24, would pair the two poetic visionaries.
The timing could not be more apt, says curator and festival cofounder David Kaplan. Both Williams and Shakespeare, he says, wrote with “the same swings between tragedy and farce we live with now in America.”
Festival veterans Fred Abrahamse and Marcel Meyer of Abrahamse & Meyer Productions of Cape Town, South Africa, a foremost interpreter of Williams’s work, return to the festival this year with two productions: Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and Williams’s “Sweet Bird of Youth.” In keeping with the festival tradition of site-specific staging around Provincetown, the cast will perform “Hamlet,” with Meyer as the Danish prince, in a shallow tank of water inside the historic Fisherman’s Wharf.
The production was inspired by “one of the earliest recorded performances of ‘Hamlet’ during Shakespeare’s lifetime and the first recorded performance of a Shakespeare play in South Africa,” says Meyer in an e-mail interview from Cape Town. “It re-imagines Shakespeare’s most iconic play within the context of the historic performance aboard [the ship] The Red Dragon as a play within a play within a play, utilizing a cast of only six actors playing six Jacobean sailors who, in turn, play all the parts in ‘Hamlet.’
“So, within the context of our production, the tank of water represents the Indian Ocean off the coast of South Africa and the raised platform, the deck of The Red Dragon. The costumes are an exciting synthesis of traditional Jacobean costume and original pieces we imagine the sailors would have created for their performance utilizing materials they would have had access to on the ship, like rope, nails and canvas.”
Abrahamse also directs Williams’s “Sweet Bird of Youth” (at Wharf House, Provincetown Marina) with Meyer as gigolo Chance Wayne and South African actress Fiona Ramsay as former movie star Alexandra Del Lago (traveling incognito as Princess Kosmonopolis). “It’s Williams’s most Shakespearean play because of his extensive use of the Shakespearean convention of soliloquy,” says Meyer. “Rather than speaking to the Princess, Williams instructs Chance to turn away from her, walk downstage and, like Hamlet, engage directly with the audience — sharing with them his deeply personal life story. The Princess, too, often soliloquises and turns away from Chance and directly addresses the audience.”
The two works, separated by centuries, are connected now more than ever, says Meyer. “In our current era of ‘post-truth’ politics, where politicians ‘smile and smile’ and prove to be villains, the theatre remains the one place where we can gather as a community to interrogate the truth. As long as ‘something is rotten in the state,’ both ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Sweet Bird of Youth’ will always be seminal works.”
A new production of Shakespeare’s “Pericles” by Die-Cast, the Philadelphia ensemble that staged Eugene O’Neill’s “The Hairy Ape” at last year’s festival, is also set in a non-theater space. The company performs “Pericles” on the deck of the Rose Dorothea, the 66-foot fishing schooner inside the Provincetown Library.
“Non-traditional spaces allow audiences to feel that they are part of the performance rather than just outside observers,” says “Pericles” director Brenna Geffers. “Where else could we share a piece that really is a story of a journey at sea? To be on a boat, surrounded by books, with the ocean visible out the windows is such a gift, not only for the audience but for the artists as well.”
The recurring theme of learning how to balance in a changing world, says Kaplan, gives this year’s festival a compelling immediacy despite the fact that the pairing of Williams and Shakespeare was planned a few years ago. “You can’t stop the storm; you have to stand on the deck,” Kaplan says. “Artists worry about what their function is in unstable times. It’s not to stabilize and calm the sea; it is just to figure out how to continue to walk.”
Kaplan will direct a one-performance-only, stripped-down production of the first three acts of Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” at Town Hall on Sept. 24. The international cast includes Robertson Dean as Marc Antony and Cleopatras played by four different actors: Meyer; TC Meltem from the National Theater of Turkey; Abena Takyi of Ghana; and Everett Quinton from New York City’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company.
Kaplan also directs Williams’s “Ten Blocks on the Camino Real,” a one-act play from 1947 that eventually became Williams’s full-length drama “Camino Real” in 1953. It will be performed by Abibigromma, the renowned troupe from Ghana, in a production that features music, dance, and drums that the company performs outdoors in Ghanaian marketplaces. That tradition continues in Provincetown. “Ten Blocks on the Camino Real” will be performed at the bas relief, the green park behind Town Hall at the foot of Pilgrim Monument.
PROVINCETOWN TENNESSEE WILLIAMS FESTIVAL
At various Provincetown venues, Sept. 21-24. Tickets: www.twptown.org