Lizard Love Lite: Iguana Nights at Contemporary Theatre

Gender power games, obsession, self-delusion, manic addiction and self-destructive compulsion, the wilds of nature v. the wilderness of civilization, all taking place in a shaken up world where the Germans have just invaded London.  Scholars and critics consider Tennessee Williams’1961 drama The Night of the Iguanaone of his greatest works. Unfolding on the verandah of a scumbag hotel on Mexico’s western coast in 1940, it deals with one man’s battle with inner demons, while a greater demon, Hitler, attempts to destroy Western civilization. Fascinating and brooding, the play’s intricate balance, contrasting the savagery of violent nature with the lyricism of pure aesthetics, reveals Williams genius at its pinnacle.

Ashley Wood as Rev. Shannon

Contemporary Theatre of Dallas offers a production of “Iguana” that comes off less than comprehensive. True, the set design (Rodney Dobbs), lighting (Russell K. Dyer) and sound design (Mason York) are exemplary, taking the audience deep into the wilds of a Mexican jungle with dynamic storm effects and steamy, sultry atmospherics. And Ashley Wood as the tormented, defrocked Reverend Shannon on the precipice of mental breakdown offers the strongest acting I’ve seen from him to date. A taut, compelling performance from start to finish, at times it’s painful to watch his Rev. Shannon’s disintegration but harder still to look away. Terry Vandivort’s sensitive, ethereal portrayal of the world’s “oldest living poet” Nonno makes an exquisite contrast to Shannon’s degradation. Ironically, Nonno’s scattered, poetic outbursts exhibit the production’s most genuine sensuality.

This production is really an adaptation. I doubt Williams created gratuitous characters, but that did not prevent director Rene Moreno from editing out several key to the play’s context. Eliminating the German tourists with their crude behavior and gauche songs celebrating Hitler’s London invasion removes the play’s global context and focuses attention on the microcosm alone. A soap opera romance in jungle setting?

Two memorable, opposing female characters drive this play: Hannah Jelkes, the con-artist spinster as engrossed with her aging grandfather as Shannon is with preying on under-age women; and Maxine Faulk, the lascivious, widowed proprietor of the seedy hotel. No matter how entranced with each other Shannon and Hannah become, Maxine never loses control of the outcome. She knows Shannon, his vulnerability; he should get drawn to her like a moth to a flame. In this production, Elizabeth van Winkle’s flirty, alluring Hannah controls Shannon from first meeting. Maxine, as portrayed by Cindee Mayfield, comes across shrill, needy and desperate. There is no logical explanation why Shannon stays with Maxine at the play’s end. Costuming, by Annell Brodeur, doesn’t help. Hannah, the “committed spinster”, slinks around in a silk kimono. Maxine, other than showing a hint of cleavage, is dressed like a Lake Highlands soccer mom. It’s utterly impossible to envision her as a manipulative, insatiable sex queen, mistress of Shannon’s fate.

A Time Magazine critic wrote about another production of The Night of the Iguana, ”Purists of the craft may object that, strictly speaking, The Night of the Iguana does not go anywhere. In the deepest sense, it does not need to. It is already there, at the moving, tormented heart of the human condition.” Sad that Contemporary Theatre’s current adaptation doesn’t lead us there.

The Night of the Iguana runs through March 4.2012

For Tickets call 214.828.0094  www.contemporarytheatreofdallas.com

The cast includes:

Francis Henry   Ivan Jasso   Sergio Leon  Ashley Wood

Don Long   Cindee Mayfield   Jessica Renee Russell

Lorna Woodford   Terry Vandivort    Elizabeth Van Winkle

George Wada photo

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