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Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium specializes in the weird and wonderful world of late-career Tennessee Williams. Actor and director Tina Brock may have met her match in The Two-Character Play, a spindly oddity offered in a rare revival as part of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival.
Yet, Brock and her intrepid collaborators—co-star John Zak and co-director Peggy Mecham—don’t merely face the challenges of this sometimes incomprehensible, often hilarious exploration of life in the theater and the constraints of family. They vanquish them. I’m willing to venture that this material has never seemed so lucid, or emerged with such sweet poetry, as it does here.
Written in 1969 and revised constantly during the final years of Williams’s life, The Two-Character Play follows a traveling brother-and-sister act on its last legs. Stranded in an unnamed Southern city in the middle of a tour that’s seen better days, Felice (Zak) and Clare (Brock) find themselves dead broke, abandoned by their company, and facing a hostile audience. What are they to do but soldier on?
The action collapses into a vivid haze of vaudevillian grandeur and harsh reality. As Felice and Clare enact the title entertainment for their hungry spectators—a melodramatic comedy about a pair of siblings dealing with the aftermath of their parents’ deaths—it becomes increasingly difficult to tell the facts of their lives from the fictions they portray.
That’s at least part of the loopy fun of the piece, which finds energetic life in this production’s fleet pacing. Zak and Brock convey the anxious, delirious emotions of two people who only feel comfortable when they are inhabiting someone else’s skin. Felice and Clare frequently discuss the dangers of getting lost in the play—the potential trauma of extreme dissociation—but the audience senses they feel most alive when they slip behind the veil of make-believe.
That ebullience contrasts achingly with the bitter truth of the siblings’ backstage existence. Brock, never better as an actor, finds uncomfortable truths in Clare’s paranoia and her growing dependence on alcohol and amphetamines. Zak, a fine comic performer who’s just as adept in drama, shows the sad-sack responsibilities of holding their act together.
In the end, The Two-Character Play is also a tense and occasionally agonizing portrait of familial codependency. The relationship between Felice and Clare shares similarities with the sibling pairs found in Williams’s more heralded works: the doleful bond between Tom and Laura in The Glass Menagerie, the passionate antagonism of Blanche and Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire. It also echoes the playwright’s own devotion to his sister Rose, who was lobotomized in the 1940s. Brock, Zak, and Mecham’s direction communicates these uncomfortable but necessary bonds.
Ridiculous and recognizable
Dirk Durossette’s scenic design turns the Bluver Theatre at the Drake into a dilapidated, seedy showplace, which Shannon Zura lights in appropriately misty shadows. Millie Hiibel’s costumes limn the worlds of reality and fantasy, much like the text itself: Felice and Clare frequently look both ridiculous and recognizable. Christopher Mark Colucci has crafted an eerie soundtrack that underscores the action in just the right moments.
Near the start of the show, Clare reminds Felice of an encounter she had with a doctor, who remarked on their bravery. “I said, 'why, that’s absurd,'” she tells him. “My brother and I are terrified of our shadows.” That may be so, but Brock and her company are fearless.
What, When, Where
The Two-Character Play. By Tennessee Williams, directed by Tina Brock, John Zak, and Peggy Mecham. $17-$25. Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium. Through September 25, 2022, at the Bluver Theatre at the Drake, 302 Hicks Street, Philadelphia. idiopathicridiculopathyconsortium.org.
Masks are required at all times in the theater.
The Bluver Theatre at the Drake is a wheelchair-accessible venue with all-gender restrooms.
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