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Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre resurrects dusty Tennessee Williams classic

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Tennessee Williams’ “Night of the Iguana” at Kansas City’s Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre

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Just like unearthing a rough cut, encrusted gem and then polishing to discover the beauty and sparkle hidden within, Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre in Kansas City unearthed the Tennessee Williams mostly obscure drams, “Night of the Iguana” in a performance that shines with talent and depth of character in their current production that runs weekends through March 16.

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Typical for a Williams’ drama, the main characters face their inner demons that slowly unveil themselves as the thick facade disintegrates before the audience’s eyes. Williams’ characters all possess an inner flaw that drives their character and his or her position within the play. Such is the case for the centrals in “Night of the Iguana.”

Main character, the defrocked clergyman, Lawrence Shannon, portrayed by Forrest Attaway, works as a tour guide on a bus journey along the Mexican coastline, in this case for a small traveling female educators on holiday. Self-serving Shannon immediately displays his demons in his fight against alcoholism and his penchant for random sex (with a selected member of each group he escorts), and his moral depravity in his encounter with an underage female.

Attaway is a strong on stage performer and easily dominates the flow of the play. He moves effortlessly between the interests of two women, and brings humor in the mix with his on-going feud with tour member Miss Fellows. Attaway oozes charm in one scene, then comedy in another, and slowly, methodically takes his character’s facade apart to reveal the torment within. Attaway is splendid in his portrayal of Shannon. He stomps, erupts, cajoles, charms, flirts, fears, and struggles as he develops intricate facets of his character.

Maxine Falk, proprietor of the seashore hotel, played by Manon Halliburton, brings forth a character with a tough facade but a marshmallow heart. Her character needs to recover from the recent death of her husband and her constant desire for intimate encounters with the hired help. Hallibuton plays the suffering widow, hell-bent on sexual satisfaction but needing a cure for the loneliness within her soul. Halliburton displays a strong character from the opening scenes and slowly allows the audience to see the obscure needs of a woman facing an uncertain future, alone. Halliburton’s character ranges from strong, to caring, to jealous, to confident, to needy as each scene plays out.

As Faulk’s competition for the attention of Shannon, Cheryl Weaver’s Hanna Jelks develops her character in the opposite manner. Weaver starts with a sweet, seemingly innocent granddaughter caring for her once, nearly famous grandfather. While she maintains her devotion to him, she finds herself drawn to Shannon, her polar opposite. Weaver builds her character from a whimper to a roar as she faces the hotel proprietor along with Shannon’s demons. She plays the part with strong stage presence, first as a gently con-artist, and then as a strong counter for Shannon’s unleashed mental struggles.

Add to that the comedic, disgruntled, feisty character of Miss Fellows, portrayed by Marilyn Lynch. Lynch’s on stage time is limited, but her performance constantly brings laughs from the audience as she spars with Attaway’s character of Shannon the tour manager. Lynch fusses, threatens, argues, and sees through Shannon’s self-serving, but profitable agreements with hotels, tourist stops, and restaurants. She clashes with him over every detail of the tour, knowing that she and the other women have been swindled at every opportunity. Lynch’s torment provides unexpected comedy in a Williams play. Expect to laugh every time she enters or exits.

As the elderly, almost famous poet, Richard Alan Nichols provides a needed balance to the play. His situation is desperate as an elderly, nearly blind man who depends upon his grandaughter for his care. His popularity waned as did his demand for appearances–and also money. As a destitute former “almost” celebrity, he’s turned to giving impromptu recitations to earn his living. Nichols plays with character with stern determination of spirit. Nichols never allows the character to sway from his goal of finishing his last commissioned piece of poetry. Even though frail of health, grandfather displays the determination of the human spirit to find a successful end. Nichols gives a very dignified portrayal of the dying grandfather with an iron will.

For bursts of comedy, a family of Germans just “appear” just at opportune times to break up some of the tension of the scene. The quartet of happy Germans are played by Nancy Nail, Adam Henry, Makenzie Goodwin, and Bruce Michael Hall. Even though their parts a walk-throughs mostly, they provide color to the play.

Another tandem of actors who give great performances in small roles are Chris Roady and Bill Pelletier. Roady plays the bus driver stuck between the tourists on his bus and Shannon who has stolen the ignition key so they can’t escape. Pelletier plays the replacement tour guide sent to take over from Shannon. The scene with Pelletier and Attaway is funny and dramatic simultaneously.

Hannah Freeman portrays the love-struck, underage conquest of Larry Shannon. She thinks she’s in love and that Shannon feels similarly. Freeman enters each scene with determination and displays a teeneage’s undeveloped notions of the difference between love and sexual encounters.

Cousins Francisco Javier Villegas and Beto Martinez, portray cousins Pancho and Pedro, the stud-muffins hired by Faulk to service her sexual needs and work for the hotel. Both are funny in their scenes, especially Villegas who has only a handful of spoken lines.

“Night of the Iguana,” takes the audience into the dark recesses of its characters. The original production on Broadway played fewer than 350 performances and was led by Bette Davis as Faulk. The show spawned a 1964 movie with Deborah Kerr, Ava Gardner and Richard Burton. Probably the biggest reason for not reaching the pinnacle of other Williams plays could be the subject matter of statutory rape. Even though not depicted in either production, the underlying thought was not acceptable in the 1960s or today. Williams was known to push the bounds with his characters.

That being said, the MET’s version is Night of the Iguana” provides the tension, steam, drama always associated with Williams’ works. Anyone who enjoys Williams’ works should but tickets and make plans to see this rendition.

Director, Karen Paisley, carefully selected actors who can play a range of characters and bring depth to this production. From top to bottom Paisley brought out the dynamics of the Williams piece. Her concept of the play and the direction makes the play move flawlessly.

Especially worth of note, the set, intricate, functional, and aesthetically pleasing set the perfect motif for the work. Paisley designed the set but took no credit for it in the program. Actors could enter and exit from various areas with ease. The set decoration, also is worthy of note. The paint for simulated arches and stone work resembled real rock. The props looked like period pieces from the 1940s. Every detail of the set and the decoration matched the time of the piece and enhanced the theatrical experience.

“Night of the Iguana” runs through March 16 at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre. Tickets may be purchased at their website: metkc.org. For further information, call the box office 816.569.3226.

The creative team that Paisley led consists of: Tony Beasley, stage manager; Atif Rome, costumes; Joseph Concha, sound; Marc Manley, props; and Lacey Pacheco, lighting.

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