5 questions for Nick Shackleford as Tennessee Williams Theatre Company presents “Dangerous Birds (If Agitated)”

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WHAT: Tennessee Williams Theatre Company of New Orleans presents a trio of short comedies from Williams
WHEN: Nov. 4-20, 8 p.m.
WHERE: Phillips Bar & Restaurants, 733 Cherokee St.
TICKETS: $25 general, $20 students/seniors
MORE INFO: Visit http://www.twtheatrenola.com/

As the company whose oxygen comes completely from the tank of one playwright, the Tennessee Williams Theatre Company of New Orleans happy to plumb the depths of the legendary writer in whichever way possible, packaged in whatever way works best.

That’s why we have “Dangerous Birds (If Agitated),” a triple-bill of three short plays by Williams as presented by the company starting Friday (Nov. 4) at, of all places, the patio of Phillips Bar. That package reportedly comes in the form of an “ornithology lesson” as taught one of New Orleans’ edgiest burlesque performers, Bunny Love — the mistress of ceremonies. (While known for her burlesque work, Love has explored theatrical acting with this troupe and as a lead in Jim Fitzmorris’ compelling “The Killing of a Lesbian Bookie.” You can read my review here.)

The packaged trio includes late-career works by Williams: “The Gnadiges Fraulein,” “Sunburst” and “The Pronoun ‘I’” And so we asked co-artistic director Nick Shackleford to walk us through the show, whose cast also features Mary Pauley, Morrey McElrey, Chris Silva, Abby Botnick, Herbert Benjamin and Pearson Kunz.

As these are generally late-career works but ones that still possess a sense of humor, can you give me a sense of how you think Tennessee Williams’ sense of humor might have evolved from his earlier works to these?
I think Williams always had a dark sense of humor, but as a younger playwright, he practiced an even, if not timid, hand in exercising this aspect of comedy. He had a concern with how he would be commercially and critically regarded. As he matured as a playwright, I think he became less preoccupied with what would be easily digestible, and elected to go full-tilt into the land of black comedy, burlesque and even cartoonish expression. He’d still include tender moments, and some of his later plays like “Vieux Carré, “Clothes for a Summer Hotel” and “Something Cloudy, Something Clear” would be more emotionally delicate, but he’d intersperse those types of plays with the bawdy, outrageous ones like you’ll see in “Dangerous Birds.”

What inspired you to work with Bunny Love on this and to give the show a dash of burlesque? She’s been with the troupe previously, but what kind of added dimension does this bring to the show?
We loved working with Bunny so much in “The Rose Tattoo” that we had to have her back again. We’d been waiting for opportunities to involve her since our very first auditions in 2015. The burlesque element just made perfect sense because Williams described the play as slapstick, and akin to burlesque himself. We took this element and ran with it, and Bunny was happy to lead the charge. We have strung the evening’s plays together in an ornithology lesson led by her character, Professor Birdine Hazzard. She’s naughty and hysterical, and at the same time it pulls these three unique plays together in a way only Bunny can.

The company says that these plays were ahead of their time. Could you please expand on that?
Especially for “The Gnädiges Fräulein,” the later plays shocked and surprised audiences in their days. The critics and the audiences didn’t really know what to do with it. It certainly wasn’t a play about disenfranchised Southern belles, which they’d come to expect from Williams. Now that we look back at it, however, it’s deeply personal, still relevant, and damn funny. “Sunburst” and “The Pronoun ‘I’” weren’t even premiered until after Williams’ death, and so they were still waiting for the world to see them. They’re very much about reputation, aging and sexuality, which we think are still topics worth exploring.

While I’m very disappointed I missed “The Rose Tattoo,” the reviews were good, and I was wondering if you could elaborate on the strength of having someone like Mary Pauley in the cast? What does she bring to the table?
Mary Pauley is absolutely fantastic. She comes into the rehearsal room with so much already fleshed out, and at the same time, I see her work with (co-artistic director Augustin J. Correro) and the cast, and she’s extremely adaptable. She’s the whole package: the voice, the nuances, the professionalism, the commitment, and she’s also one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. Her generosity of spirit is highly palpable and contagious!

There’s a lot of debate about the quality of Tennessee’s late-career word. As a theater company that’s dedicated to examining and presenting the whole of his work, how do you see this particular presentation in that light?
There are a few categories of late Williams, if we could be so bold as to lump them. One is the revisited memory play, another is the apocalyptic black comedy. These file mostly under a third category, which is the outrageous, wild, zany Williams. The metaphors are painted in broad strokes, the punches aren’t pulled, and there’s violence mashed up against silliness. What we saw in the last half of Williams’ career was an artist who wasn’t willing to surrender his desire to grow and experiment for commercial reasons. He’d always wrestle with expectations and the beast of Broadway, but the struggle wasn’t enough for him to give up his artistic vision. Basically, they’re just not so classically formed as the more famous plays (some of the earliest plays are similar to these, they’re just not as well-known). They are daring and sometimes uncomfortable, which is one function of great theatre, we think.

But the payoff is still there. You feel something, you learn something about human interaction. So in that way, these plays are just as touching as “Streetcar” or “Glass Menagerie.” They’re just seen through a distorted mirror — one which bends and makes room for a fuller understanding of the human spirit.


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