We took in Birdtown & Swanville's double bill contribution to the neighbourhood-traversing Tennessee Project.
There are plenty of great local theatre companies collaborating on The Tennessee Project, as we noted in our preview of the ambitious city-crossing theatrical experiment. But in a busy theatre week of openings and other festivals, we chose to see Birdtown & Swanville’s double bill of The Pink Bedroom and I Never Get Dressed before Dark on Sundays first.
One reason: it’s a rare example of the company producing another playwright’s work. They’ve tended to self-create many of their inventively staged shows, including The Physical Ramification of Attempted Global Domination at SummerWorks, Dead Wrestlers at Rhubarb, and 36 Little Plays About Hopeless Girls at the Fringe Festival. “We’ve done another playwright once before,” said producer/actor/designer Nika Mistruzzi (she and collaborator Aurora Stewart De Peña wear many hats), when we met with them post-show. “An Amy and David Sedaris play, The Book of Liz.”
Another reason we chose Birdtown & Swanville from the eight participating companies is for the inventive staging in their past shows, including a full wrestling ring for Dead Wrestlers. This time around, their staging is far simpler, owing to the nature of the project, which necessitates setting up in a new a space in a new neighbourhood every night. “Nika’s done all the set, and the costumes,” said Stewart De Peña. “In the past, we’ve worked with designers.”
The set is very adaptable to the peripatetic nature of the project, but, according to Mistruzzi, that wasn’t entirely intentional. “We sort of lucked out,” she said, “because we didn’t really think it through.” The scenery consists of a large bed with hangings, pillows and linens that are quickly swapped out between the two short one-act plays.
“It works out well that both plays can take place in a boudoir,” said Mistruzzi. “And whatever the space is like, our entrances will be the same.” That’s especially important considering the fact that the company has no idea what the spaces are like; they haven’t had time to scout the seven different locations they’ll be playing in. Stewart De Peña isn’t even sure of the next night’s location when we ask her. “It’s fun—it’s like we’re a travelling theatre troupe,” she says. And truly, they are—travelling across the city. “Every space is going to change how the show is received.”
The performance we saw took place in a dark, rec room–like bar beneath a Lithuanian community church. Mistruzzi co-stars with Dov Mickelson in the first playlet, a scene between two disillusioned and disconnected lovers, which they perform in an exaggerated, melodramatic style. Truthfully, we preferred the second playlet, when a scene between two younger but no less desperate lovers, played by Meghan Swaby and Kaleb Alexander, became a play within a play, with Stewart De Peña as a director for the two actors, and Mickelson’s drunk and irascible playwright (a stand-in for Williams himself) tangling with Mistruzzi’s tightly wound stage manager.
“We’ve tended to work in performative styles,” explained Mistruzzi post-show, when we asked her why they chose these two plays. “And, in that context, these have been fun to work on, playing with [Williams'] work. You can do so much with it: treat it very romantically, or go very raw. It’s all there.”
De Peña especially appreciated learning more about the playwright himself in prepping for the show. “He was so brilliant, and troubled, and complex,” De Peña said. “His life was so full of extremes. He had a lot of erratic experiences.” The plays the company has selected are smaller and more personal than Williams’ better known works, like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or A Streetcar Named Desire. Williams wrote himself into many of his stories, but I Never Get Dressed in particular gives a glimpse of the playwright at the end of his life.
The play wrapped up quickly, and the company packed its set into a van. The next night, Wednesday, May 2, the group would travel to North York, to perform in the Gibson House Museum—a new community and space that could use some Southern twang and melodrama.