'The Two Character Play' may confuse, but Miami Theater Center triumphs with late Tennessee Williams work

MIAMI SHORES, Fla. -- You'll likely find your mind in overdrive but still rapidly spinning in thought and confusion after witnessing "The Two-Character Play," Tennessee Williams' dream-like, little-produced, convoluted but thought-provoking, riveting, touching and humorous dramatic work.

The dark and disturbing play see-saws between reality and fantasy and will leave you wondering what to believe. There may be little certainty in Williams' play about a brother and sister on edge, but be assured: The Miami Theater Center is staging a thoroughly convincing, innovative production through April 24.

Have you ever heard of the kind of play in which the plot mirrors the events taking place in the actors' lives? That's one way to describe "The Two-Character Play." But this play also raises several questions: Where, exactly, does this play take place? Are the siblings indeed actors, traveling with a touring company? Does the touring company exist to begin with?

In some ways, "The Two-Character Play" sounds like a Williams work, but with some absurdism a la Samuel Beckett, a menace that might bring to mind Harold Pinter and a creepiness that could suggest Martin McDonagh.

There's an autobiographical aspect to "The Two-Character Play"; Williams suffered with the mental instability of his sister, Rose, an inspiration behind the playwrights' masterpiece "The Glass Menagerie."

In typical Williams style, the siblings of "The Two-Character Play" are vulnerable, on the brink, emotional, desperate and frustrated as they strongly desire something that may lie beyond their grasp.

In this case, the siblings, Felice and Clare, are struggling to gain freedom -- emotionally and physically.

The pair, we learn, are members of a touring company which suddenly abandons them in the midst of a tour in a theater located in an unnamed municipality.

With only a partial set with which to work, the siblings nevertheless forge ahead to act out the play.

This play-within-a-play, in a way, mirrors the siblings' life situation.

A possible murder-suicide took place in their home that left their mother and their eccentric father dead. Who killed whom is they mystery. The primary suspects in the neighbors' eyes are the siblings? The neighbors have essentially confined the pair to their home -- the son of a neighboring couple slings rocks at their house and their home is always surrounded.

In the "play-within-a-play," Felice and Clare cry for help, just as they do so in the theater in which they're performing.

The exact identity of "The-Two Character Play" mystifies.

Consider:

Clare: Didn't you tell me you went out today?

Felice: Yes, you saw me come in.

Clare: I didn't see you go out.

Felice: When you see somebody come in you know he's been out.

Clare: How far outside did you go? Past the sunflowers or--?

Felice: I went to the gate, and do you know what I noticed?

Clare: Something that scared you back in?

Felice: No, what I saw didn't scare me, but it, it--startled me, though. It was---

Clare: What?

Felice: Clare.

Clare: What?

Felice (in a stage whisper): You know, "The Two-Character Play."

Huh?

So "The Two-Character Play" is some sort of bogeyman?

This is not Williams at his clearest, much less his most lyrical.

Parts of the play suggest absurdism, as in this tounge-twisting passage.

Felice: You know, I wonder if nature, that vast being and producer of beings, is satisfied with so many of its beings being so much like so many other of that kind of being or would actually be better pleased with more little--prodigies? Monsters? Freaks? Mute relations? What's your opinion, Clare?

Here's an absurd, and in a way, scary passage (especially if you care about the theater's future).

Clare: I read or heard somewhere that cockroaches are immune to radiation and so are destined to be the last organic survivors of the great "Amen: -- after some centuries there's going to be cockroach actors and actresses and cockroach playwrights and -- Artists' Management and -- audiences.

More characteristic of Williams, there's also the poetic:

Felice: Fear is a monster vast as night--

Clare: And shadow casting as the sun.

Felice: It is quicksilver, quick as light--

Clare: It slides beneath the down-pressed thumb.

Felice: Last night we locked it from the house.

Clare: But caught a glimpse of it today.

Felice: In a corner, like a mouse.

Clare: Gnawing all four walls away.

The smartly-staged production, under the sensitive direction of Stephanie Ansin, literally blurs the line between fantasy and reality. The line is blurry like white-out conditions during a windswept snowstorm.

Speaking of white, the audience seats that theater staff know in advance won't be occupied for a particular performance are covered with white sheets, reinforcing the notion of an abandoned (ghostly?) theater.

The actors perform part of the production on a projector...so much so, that strict traditionalists might complain that the production's team takes that choice too far, since this is live theater. But in this case it works, because one of the siblings asks whether the audience (which may or may not be in attendance) is made up of humans.The actors appearing on a screen enhances the distance and mystery of the audience's make-up.

On different areas of the screen, we see numbered cameras, complete with the time of day, including the seconds. We see a white light that casts its shadow on the floor in the theater's lobby, making its way outside. This creates the effect of a white-out of the street, suggesting the city we're in is some mysterious locale.

Other cameras capture scenes that resemble a dark, abandoned warehouse with shut doors and numbered black crates. It's in these areas of the theater that the action before the "play-within-a-play" is set. Then the screen rises to reveal a large stage with a few pieces of realistic scenic elements -- enough to suggest a house (credit Fernando Calzadilla, who designed the sets).

Calzadilla, who also designed the lighting, could have used non-realistic effects, since parts of the play deal with memory and how individuals recollect the past differently. Effects that suggest a clash between the realistic and fantastical could also work.

The cast is, for the most part, first-rate. At the beginning, though, you wonder whether any nuance will creep into the performances of Edson Jean (Felice) and Shira Abergel (Clare). They play their characters as heated, confrontational, trapped, exasperated and with an immediate urgency. You really feel as though they're running for their lives. Abergel also invests her character with a dry, sarcastic wit. Both actors later nicely convey palpable fear and a closeness that makes it clear that, in the end, while they might be losing their grip on sanity, they're protective of each other. That's in contrast to earlier, when the siblings argued so vehemently and even fought physically (credit goes to movement coach Lazaro Godoy) for helping make the physical struggles look real.)

Credit goes out to sound engineer Mauricio Lodono and composer and sound designer Alec Kreisberg  for foreboding, creepy sound effects and music.

Williams has called "The Two-Character Play" ..."my most beautiful play since 'Streetcar.'"

That's stretching it, but it's a shame that "The Two-Character Play," a late-career work of Williams, is seldom seen. Certainly it's timely, with the unpredictable, frightful world in which we live...one that often feels like a nightmare.

The play can also shine light on mental illness. This play is open to interpretation and these characters might not be stable enough to tell you exactly who they are, who's under their control or what they're doing and why.

This play makes us uncomfortable and provokes thought, something that solid theater should do. There's no clear-cut, comfortable resolution, either. But sometimes life doesn't afford us that.

Kudos to Miami Theater Center for an intense, riveting production that feels real. Credit also goes to the company for finding a way to clash reality with fantasy -- breaking down the fourth wall and extending the playing space to encompass the entire theater. This reinforces the relevance of the play's themes and ideas to our real world.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: "The Two Character Play"

WHEN: Through April 24. 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.

WHERE: Miami Theater Center, 9806 N.E. 2nd Ave., Miami Shores

HOW MUCH: $45. Log onto www.mtcmiami.org.