The idea of traditional theater is slowly becoming a cultural atavism in the year 2017, especially when it comes to classic plays that Broadway audiences have already seen countless times.
Even the plays that were originally written as unconventional need to be re-imagined in a way that challenges not only the content, but also the form. Avant-garde star Sam Gold reimagines Tennessee Williams’ classic The Glass Menagerie in a style so versatile, it is fresh, edgy and at most, revolutionary.
The width of the stage appears endless. The walls are naked and brightly illuminated. The stage is empty, as if it is a rehearsal space for an amateur theater group. There is a chrome table on center stage left, reflecting the light with an almost sick paleness. Four figures enter from the audience and clumsily climb on to the stage.
“The play is memory,” says a man to an intrigued audience that is slowly realizing that the show has begun. “Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic.”
This opening from Williams is a canon on its own, but these words have never been interpreted as literally as in the current Broadway revival.
The idea of surrealism is the central theme of this revival. Gold takes the traditional views of realism on stage and throws them outside the stage door.
The director plays with the play’s elements, toying around with text, characters and space, pushing the boundaries of what is real and what is not, as we perceive.
The Glass Menagerie is Williams’ personal recollection of his family. Tom Wingfield, played by Joe Montello, is a middle-aged closeted man who feels trapped in a house with his controlling and delusional mother Amanda, and his shy handicapped sister Laura.
Both siblings are on the edge of being suffocated by their matriarch, who is portrayed by two-time Academy award winner Sally Field.
Amanda is a southern belle, who is broken down from being abandoned by her husband and her dream. Field’s rage and delusion are progressive, dynamically evolving throughout the show until her grand breakdown in the final scene.
Mantello is a two-time Tony- winning director, whose return to his acting roots is a pleasant surprise. His awkwardness is balanced out by “America Horror Story’s” Finn Wittrock, who plays Jim O’Connor—Tom’s former classmate.
Jim is a charming and overly masculine high school superstar, who is seen as the savior for the Wingfield family.
However, the highlight of the play is actually neither of these highly decorated artists, but rather a young actress in her Broadway debut. Madison Ferris creates a breathtaking portrayal of Laura.
Ferris has muscular dystrophy, so she brings not just her physicality to the character, but a heavy luggage of personal experience. Ferris makes history with this production, as she becomes the first person in a wheelchair to ever star in a play on Broadway.
But her casting is not just a strive for diversity—it is a director’s choice that perfectly suits the overall theme of a shattered reality. Laura is far from being pitiful. Ferris paints a daring portrait of Laura—a head strong young woman, who comes of age right in front of our eyes.
Radically reimagined American classics are a prominent trend in theater now.
Last season, Belgium director Ivo van Hove awed Broadway audiences with his revivals of Arthur Miller’s plays, A View from the Bridge and Crucible. Gold is Van Hove’s protege and is highly influenced by the techniques of the European master.
In The Glass Menagerie, there is an almost anatomical destruction of the classic technical form. The entire venue is utilized as a whole performing space, with the set and lights recycled to shape into anything Gold and his team desire.
There is even a real rainstorm. The second half of the show is done almost in complete darkness, with only a couple of candles illuminating everything. Reminiscent of classical Rembrandt paintings, the faces of the actors flicker with a pensive mystery of isolation. They are just eyes separated by eternity of darkness.
However, unlike the works of van Hove, who is very cohesive and thorough, Gold’s production is lost in its desire to be unconventional. The central themes never come to a full exposition, ending up being sacrificed for the purposes of awing abstractionism.
This leaves the audience in complete confusion, not really understanding what the spectacle that they just experienced was supposed to tell them.
Yet, this exposition of theatrical non-conformity is worth seeing. There is a soulful force, which keeps this dynamic work exploring the deepest personal troubles.
Without realizing, the audience will find themselves deeply emotional without fully comprehending why.
Even in the way of how moving it is, this production is a trendsetter that will hopefully pave the way for more theater makers to reimagine classics in a daring and powerful way.