General 9-27-2003

Dance Review: “3 x Tennessee” by the Dolls

"3 x Tennessee" runs through Sunday at the Southern. Kim Surkan describes the illuminating treatment that Ballet of the Dolls gives to fragments of Tennessee Williams' life and works.

Tennessee Williams is apparently in vogue this September – whether in St. Paul, Minneapolis, or Lanesboro, performing arts companies are putting Williams’ scripts or characters onstage. Some productions are more conventional than others: Starting Gate’s “Period of Adjustment” and Commonweal Theater Company’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” are being done as full-length plays, but the Minnesota Fringe brought us the experimental “Five-Fifths of ‘Streetcar’” at Jeune Lune on September 22, and last weekend Ballet of the Dolls opened “3X Tennessee,” an evening of modern dance based on Williams’ life and characters at the Southern Theater.

The Dolls’ performance is perhaps best appreciated by dance audiences and aficionados of the Southern playwright’s work, and particularly those who know well the films made from his stageplays. Artistic director and choreographer Myron Johnson has combined biographical elements of Williams’ life with vivid portrayals of three of his signature female characters (Blanche DuBois, Maggie the Cat, and Baby Doll) in this unique tribute to the artist.

“3X Tennessee” is visually arresting; the production succeeds in conveying the turmoil fueling Williams’ struggle with anxiety and addiction with help from Jeff Bartlett’s creative lighting design. Steve Carlino narrates some of the key biographical information from a platform above Williams’ bed at stage left, which is where much of dancer Robert Skafte’s performance takes place.

Dolls regulars will immediately recognize Johnson’s eclectic signature in this work – as always, borrowing freely from a wide range of musical accompaniment, he includes elements of jazz, folk, pop, country, and classical in creating his portrait of Williams. Who else would put music sung by Ella Fitzgerald, Annie Lennox, and the Irish folk song “Danny Boy” in the same show?

Johnson’s postmodern tendencies are also evident in his nonlinear and at times surreal juxtaposition of fiction and fact in his portrayal of Williams’ life history; we see the playwright on his deathbed, confronted with his own characters. In these interactions, the line between literature and biography is blurred – and the aggressively heterosexual female characters highlight Williams’ own homosexuality as he tries to fend off their advances.

“3X Tennessee” isn’t a documentary of Williams’ life, nor does it come across as a coherent narrative of events leading up to his death. What it does well is make the familiar characters we know and love come alive in their interaction with their maker. Although the unison is not as tight as usual for this company, the solos and duets are characteristically strong and technical. Stephanie Karr-Smith uncannily evokes Liz Taylor in her performance as Maggie from “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” Julia Tehven sweeps across the stage more convincingly than Vivien Leigh in her drunken bravery as Blanche DuBois, and Stephanie Fellner becomes the epitome of a “Baby Doll” with her thumb-sucking, infantile sexual proclivity.

Film buffs will recognize props made memorable in director Elia Kazan’s renditions of “Streetcar” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Don’t go to this show for a complete portrait of the elusive Tennessee Williams or a full account of his life – although we get glimpses of his sister’s lobotomy and his relationship with Frank Merlo, these remain mere references rather than detailed explanations. That’s just as well – leave biography for PBS and head to the Southern for a dose of Williams through modern dance.

“3X Tennessee” by Ballet of the Dolls runs at the Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Ave S, Mpls, through Sunday, September 28. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday, with an additional 5 p.m. performance on Saturday, September 27. Tickets are $20-25. Call 340-1725 for reservations.