Key clues to understanding Glass Guignol: The Brother and Sister Play–a high-intensity, sometimes overwrought journey through the monstrousness and perversity, the egoism and the destructive love, at the heart of two kinds of relationships: brother and sister, and artist and muse–are embedded in its title. “Glass” for The Glass Menagerie, the main and most familiar of the Tennessee Williams plays that provide most of the text for the piece. “Guignol” for both the French Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, famous for its horror plays and its scripts that delved into the nature of insanity, and for an early title of one of the first published works by the French proto-surrealist/absurdist playwright Alfred Jarry, best known for Pere Ubu and its spirit of barely controlled anarchy. “Brother and Sister” for the two central figures (Greg Mehrten and Maude Mitchell), who are alternately Menagerie’s Tom and Laura Wingfield (as well as the other two characters in the play, Tom and Laura’s mother, Amanda, and the “Gentleman Caller”) and the less-familiar Clare and Felice from the late Williams piece The Two-Character Play. (Glass Guignol also dips into two other Williams pieces–Suddenly, Last Summer and the early, rarely produced A Cavalier for Milady–briefly and somewhat hallucinatorily, along with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in a sort of Frankenstein’s-monster-ex-
Glass Guignol, created by Maude Mitchell and director Lee Breuer, remixes its source materials, using the provocative artistic techniques of both Jarry and Dadaism, “applying the strategies of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades” to the Williams works. Duchamp’s idea in the readymades was to bestow the stamp of art upon an ordinary, manufactured object by virtue of its naming, a kind of inversion of aesthetics where visual beauty or the stamp of craft becomes irrelevant to how the piece of art is experienced. That’s not quite what Breuer and Mitchell are doing here, though; the piece does have an enormous amount of craft in it, as the shards and fragments of the “found objects” of the source material are layered and interwoven into one another, and all of that geared to reflect upon Williams’s relationship with his own sister/muse, Rose. But the anarchic spirit of Jarry, and the random, striking and illogical visual elements of Duchamp, do find their way into Glass Guignol: in the sometimes dazzlingly surreal imagery and drop-in minor characters, in the stylized, boisterously energetic character portrayals, and in the utterly non-realistic, explicitly theatrical approach to Glass Menagerie, so often characterized as a piece of classical American realism. It’s using Dadaism as a Brechtian tool (a reference the play explicitly makes), a way of triggering Bertolt Brecht’s “alienation effect” (or Verfremdungseffekt, if we’re speaking German, as one of the minor characters, the Warden [Jessica Weinstein] does) and forcing the audience to remain conscious of the theatrical artifice, to look at the relationships and the structures rather than be sucked in to an unthinking emotional relationship with the characters. The Two-Character Play, itself an intensely self-reflexive play about actors and the theater, fits right in with the mission here, but it’s a much less familiar way of looking at Menagerie.
All of which is to say, this is not an easy piece of theater to parse or to appreciate: it’s stuffed with references both textual and visual; it rewards the viewer who not only can mentally compare with other Glass Menageries but who knows a bit about Williams and his relationship with his sister, who knows a bit about Mary Shelley and her relationship with Lord Byron (who appears in the play as a puppet), who recognizes the Russian choreographer Nijinsky, commedia dell’arte masks, the Wallace Stevens poem “The Man with the Blue Guitar”–et cetera. (I found myself busily researching some of the references at intermission to get on a firmer footing before Act 2.) It also depends entirely on the ability of the two central performers, the Brother and Sister, to exist in such an intense symbiosis with each other that that relationship becomes the central core of the play, its main narrative strand no matter what characters those figures are playing–but also to be constantly, consciously, engaging and directly communicating with the audience. Fortunately, Mehrten and Mitchell are up to the task, with Mitchell in particular bringing an astounding precision and emotional groundedness to every choice, even those that seem utterly absurd.
I did find the piece ultimately a little too much: too long, too much source material crammed in without being parsed, too much intense feverish communion between Mitchell and Mehrten, a surfeit of strange visual touches and gestures that can drift toward puzzling rather than provocative (ape stagehands who become Brechtian interlocutors; Byron as a marionette/ statue who texts his queries; a living statue of Nijinsky who does an aerial act; a German dominatrix; a wandering minstrel; commedia dell’arte references). At the same time, when it works, it tap into a dark and rich subconscious, with fascinating threads weaving through the complexity of the sibling relationships, with the more familiar Williams work mirroring the less-known one; the emphasis on madness and sexual fantasy (suddenly Byron’s presence makes a lot more sense); the physicality of the aging or infirm body (the actors are often in wheelchairs) vs the exquisite body (Nijinsky); the stunning transmutation of the Sister into Frankenstein’s monster; a deep sense of cyclicality, as the play ends back where it began. I can’t entirely articulate how Breuer and Mitchell have drawn a throughline from Laura Wingfield to Frankenstein’s monster (other than via references to lightning from both texts), it powerfully evokes the sense of monstrosity and madness that inhabits the play. Glass Guignol’s fierce intelligence is admirable even if the piece sometimes threatens to cross the line between productive alienation effect and just plain alienating.
Glass Guignol: The Brother and Sister Play runs to December 23. More production info can be found here.