Theatre review/interview: Enchanting immersion in The Blue Piano/The Blue Guitar of Tennessee Williams- at The Vineyard Hotel, Cape Town

What: The Blue Piano/The Blue Guitar
Where: The Vineyard Hotel’s restaurant
When: September 25 to October 10, 2021 (Friday, Saturday, and Sundays)
Times: Friday and Saturday 5.30pm for 6pm, Sunday  2.30pm for 3pm
Tickets: R550 (includes meal and paired drinks); R450 – if you don’t have the drinks  
Performers: Marcel Meyer, Matthew Baldwin and Zoë McLaughlin
Director: Fred Abrahamse
Musical direction, arrangements, accompaniment on piano and guitar: Jaco Griessel
Presented by: The Vineyard Hotel, in association with Abrahamse & Meyer Productions in partnership with Tally Ho! Productions      

Enchanting immersive theatre –swathed in blue

Enchanting! I was entranced by The Blue Piano/The Blue Guitar– spectacular costumes, and captivating performances in this immersive theatre show- presented in the restaurant at The Vineyard Hotel. A section of the restaurant has been draped in blue for the show, which features extracts from Tennessee Williams plays, accompanied by narrative linkages (Mathew Baldwin), scenes and singing with by the fabulous Marcel Meyer and Zoë McLaughlin, accompanied on piano and guitar, by Jaco Griessel.

I gasped at the glorious voice of McLaughlin as she wafted into restaurant, swathed in blue. Here we are, after over months of Covid and this magical musical theatre show unfurls in a restaurant. How to describe the show? It is more than a revue. It is more than a compilation of snippets from Tennessee Williams plays- music which he referenced and in some cases which were sung in his plays. The Blue Piano/The Blue Guitar is a multi-layered and highly considered musical-theatrical piece- with the first half centered around the Blue Piano and the 2nd around the Blue Guitar. I am including comments from Marcel Meyer to provide insights into this extraordinary mélange of biography, narrative and music.

The importance of song in Tennessee Williams’ plays

Meyer explains: “Yes, all the songs in the evening are referenced by Tennessee Williams in his plays. Sometimes he mentions that they are heard in the background coming from off-stage. Other times he asks for them to be sung on stage during the course of the action. Most of the songs were written in the 20s and 30s some even earlier – a song like From the Land of the Sky-Blue Water, was written at the turn of the previous century in 1909.”

Tom (aka) Tennessee Williams as narrator in The Blue Piano/The Blue Guitar

Matthew Baldwin takes on the role of the narrator – Tom – from The Glass Menagerie – as he sets each scene and evokes background and context for the featured plays.  Meyer: “Tom is the character Tennessee Williams used as a stand-in for himself in his autobiographical play, The Glass Menagerie. Tennessee was always called Tom by his family. His full name was Thomas Lanier Williams III and he took on the ‘stage name’ of Tennessee Williams in 1939… We use a section from Tom’s opening monologue in The Glass Menagerie to open The Blue Piano – with a young Tennessee Williams. In essence we have Tennessee Williams as the narrator for the evening. All the linking text between the scenes from the plays are Tennessee Williams’ actual words, that I sourced from his memoirs and other essays he wrote about his plays.  I suppose one could possibly describe this show: Matthew Baldwin, plays a young Tennessee Williams, hosting the evening, and linking the various scenes with relevant extracts from Williams’ amusing Memoirs.” That nails it. I would say that The Blue Piano/The Blue Guitar has the makings of a musical – Tennessee Williams – the musical.  I hope that this is being considered by the team – Abrahamse & Meyer Productions in partnership with Tally Ho! Productions.

Costumes and styling

The kick off point of The Blue Piano/The Blue Guitar is William’s Cairo, Shanghai, Bombay (1935), set in the Bronx, which he wrote when he was 24, and the evening ends with Orpheus Descending (1957), set in the Mississippi Delta. In Orpheus, Marcel Meyer is the itinerant musician, garbed in a snakeskin jacket (fabulous jacket) who stumbles into a small town. It is complicated – the passion and coupling that ensures. The costumes (by Meyer) are fabulous. Matthew Baldwin as Tom/Tennessee Williams is garbed in a dashing “white linen two-piece suit from the 1930s with two-toned shoes.” Meyer: “I tried to give each half of the show, a distinct look and feel just as musically each half is associated with a different instrument [part 1 the piano] and gender [ the focus being very much on Williams great female parts] and part 2 [the guitar] and the focus shifting somewhat to Williams’ male hustler heroes. Part 1 is costumed mostly in white with hints of blue. The periods covered in part one are the depression years, the 1930s- Cairo, Shanghai, Bombay and Edwardian costumes for Summer and Smoke which is set in Mississippi in the 1910s and the 1940s for the Streetcar scenes. Costumes for Part 2 are more fantastical with more surreal and poetic scenes from plays like Camino Real, hence the deep blue colours throughout and the heightened style of the costumes.”

The importance of blue for Tennessee Williams

And Blue? Meyer: “Blue was a major symbolic colour for Williams. It is a colour that he represents in his plays; sometimes madness, but also escape: escape into madness, escape into fantasy and illusion, escape into liquor or sex, it is also associated with the night. He is very specific in his plays when he wants the colour blue used. Sometimes he will call for blue light, other times he will mention that the colour of the costume is blue and on two occasion he even called for blue coloured instruments – a blue piano in A Streetcar Named Desire and a blue guitar in Camino Real. He was very aware about how colour could be used. While he was a young writer in Provincetown, he interacted with painters and visual artists and many of their theories about the use of colour, he adapted and used in his plays. That is the amazing this about Williams as a writer – he understood every aspect of what makes great theatre. Not only was he an incredible wordsmith and poet who could create haunting turns of phrases and unbelievably striking, dynamic and memorable characters for actors to play, but he had a strong understanding about the visual aspect of theatre too: The costumes, the scenery and the lighting and music and how all those elements could be used by a playwright to further extend and expand on his metaphors and themes beyond just the spoken text of the play.”

The Vineyard happens to have a blue bathroom and a blue wall in the restaurant. Meyers says that that this was a win for the team. “Yes we were very lucky when we saw the space that we knew it would be the perfect space for this programme – with that fabulous blue wall – which is the old exterior wall of the old manner house, the blue in the bathrooms – it was the perfect coming together of venue, material and, music and words, food and beverage.”

Back to the review and why I loved The Blue Piano/The Blue Guitar

I loved The Blue Piano/The Blue Guitar. Throughout the show, there are refrains by Williams that we all seek love; belonging, acceptance. We yearn to commune with others and walk the path of this crazy world, with a significant other or others. We don’t want to be alone and love –even if it is fleeting or illusionary – is what pulls us along: “What is this place… what are we… why?” The show is a feast of theatre, food and the delicious lines of Tennessee Williams such as: “We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars…” The show is whimsical, elegiac, hopeful and utterly entertaining. It is about being transported by music, song, writing, alluring costumes and sitting in a musical theatre spectacle. The food is fragrant and yummy. There is an array of amazing drinks – sake (the strong stuff, not watered down, whoa), Chianti, gin and tonic, beer and a rum cocktail (potent).

The Blue Piano/The Blue Guitar is the latest collaboration of immersive/site responsive theatre, between Abrahamse & Meyer Productions and The Vineyard Hotel. Williams spent much of his life living in hotels and he wrote a bundle of plays set in hotels, boarding houses and hostels. Those plays have become known as the Hotel Plays. Over the years, Abrahamse & Meyer Productions has presented the Hotel Plays in the Vineyard Hotel, with food and beverages. This year, they pivoted away from presenting a play or two short plays and brought in song and music with Tally Ho! Productions on board, providing musical arrangements and accompaniment. The result is The Blue Piano/The Blue Guitar- which conjures up Tennessee Williams (aka Tom), who is in Cape Town, at the Vineyard Hotel, hosting an evening; talking about his life and work. Fabulous. As I say, I reckon that The Blue Piano/The Blue Guitar, has the makings of a musical. I can imagine a grand staircase and dancers and footage from the life and times of Tennessee Williams which is resonates now, in our mad times, when we need to find meaning, hope and escape through art – theatre, music, plays –dazzling costumes and vistas.

Orpheus Descending: Marcel Meyer (note the snakeskin jacket) and Zoë McLaughlin – in The Blue Piano/The Blue Guitar. Supplied.

✳ Featured image: Camino Real – Jacco Griessel (Tally Ho! Productions) at the blue piano, Matthew Baldwin in “white linen two-piece suit from the 1930s with two-toned shoes” (designed by Marcel Meyer), Zoë McLaughlin and Marcel Meyer. Supplied.