'Small Craft Warnings'

'Small Craft Warnings'

How does a 21st-century director improve upon the work of one of the greatest 20th-century playwrights? By honoring what the writer wanted in the first place. If you’re director Cyndy A. Marion and you’re reviving Tennessee Williams’ Small Craft Warnings, you look to the source for inspiration.

“One of the reasons I’m so interested in revivals,” says Marion, who is producing artistic director of the White Horse Theater Company, “is because I really want so hard to realize exactly what [the playwright] wanted. I’m almost playing the dramaturge here as well, doing as much research as I can and taking my cues from the text to try to present it the way that I think, ideally, he would have wanted it presented.”

While Small Craft Warnings, which debuted Off-Broadway in 1972, is considered a lesser Williams work, grouped with nearly everything he wrote after The Night of the Iguana, it’s also perhaps the most successful play of his post-1950s period.

Still, there are elements that Marion wishes she could change: dialogue that could be cut, a stereotypical gay couple that could be more three-dimensional, a minor character she believes could be removed entirely. And, she says, “I think this isn’t a finished play.” But her intention is to “take a play that had been considered a problem play for Williams and maybe solve some of the problems through the staging, the directing, and the acting.”

Set in a seaside bar on the California coast, Small Craft Warnings combines the poetic realism of Williams’ earlier plays with the more abstract elements that define his later work. It’s a tribute to humanity, life, and loneliness seen through the eyes of the bar’s patrons, both in their strained interactions and in the monologues sprinkled throughout the play. Whereas much of Williams’ late work tended toward extreme abstraction, Marion says Small Craft Warnings “seemed like a throwback to the earlier work…in a way that’s a little more digestible.”

Consider the notes Williams provided about the set, for example. “The pictures that I’ve seen look like a very realistic bar, with checkered tablecloths,” Marion says. “Then you read his notes and wonder, That doesn’t sound like what he wanted. So that’s where we’re getting the ideas for the abstract setting and everything. It’s all coming from him.”

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Marion describes the set for her production as an “abstracted evocation of a bar,” creating an otherworldly place, a version of purgatory. The characters are caught inside like fish in a net (the walls are literally made of fishing net), and rather than shine a spotlight on characters as they deliver their monologues, the lighting fades to change the mood. Such ideas sprang, she says, from examining the disconnect between the grounded world of the bar and the more ephemeral world of the monologues. Her challenge was to marry those dueling styles as the playwright envisioned.

“I think people are more ready now for stylized work” than they were in 1972, Marion says. “Maybe with the way we’re presenting it, with a more stylized setting, and taking more liberties with the way the monologues are being presented, people will be able to digest that better than they were before.”

As a director, Marion says, she works in phases. Last year White Horse staged a revival of Williams’ In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel. Before that, the company revived a string of Sam Shepard plays, including True West, The Late Henry Moss, and Buried Child. “With Shepard, I felt that being a female director was a perfect balance,” she says. “Shepard himself tends to go so far in the direction of the physicality, and I feel that when he directs his own work, he doesn’t bring out the poetic sensitivity of it. I would focus on finding softer moments to counterbalance the raw physicality.”

When directing a Williams play, however, “I don’t have to work so hard to bring out the poetic. It’s there already. Tennessee Williams wasn’t afraid to express that and it’s more built into the work, so I’m not having to work as hard to pull it out. For, in my opinion, America’s greatest playwright, we need to see all of his periods, not just the early one.”

‘Small Craft Warnings’ runs through Oct. 5 at the WorkShop Theater Company, 312 W. 36th St., 4th floor, NYC. Tickets: $18. For more information, go to http://www.whitehorsetheater.com or call (212) 868-4444.

This “web exclusive” was published online at BackStage.com.

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