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Wednesday, Jun 3 1998
The Long Night of the Iguana
The Night of the Iguana. By Tennessee Williams. Directed by Keith Phillips and James Palermo. Starring Catherine Castellanos, Chris Phillips, Yulah Cochran, and Bruce Mackey. At the Actors Theater, 533 Sutter (at Mason), through July 26. Call 296-9179.

Tourist agencies like to use The Night of the Iguana as a selling point for Puerto Vallarta. "See the magnificent setting for the movie The Night of the Iguana!" or, "Keep in mind that Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor fell in love under this same starlit Mexican sky." Indeed, gossip about Burton and Taylor's romance on the set of the movie in the early '60s turned Puerto Vallarta into an American "destination" for the first time. This fact stands as a testament to the American public's excellent lack of irony. The script has a defrocked minister named Rev. Shannon misdirecting a tour bus full of American church ladies to a dilapidated jungle hotel, where he spends the night, falls in love, and almost loses his mind. It doesn't contain a single sympathetic word for tourists, and anyone who has seen the movie or the play will come away believing that romance in Mexico happens in spite of the tourists, rather than to them. The church ladies get diarrhea; Shannon's ordeal makes him suicidal; Mexico in general looks as appealing as Thomas Mann's Venice; but the flow of Americans to Puerto Vallarta for over 30 years has been steady.

The play starts with the Rev. Shannon in trouble with the church ladies for sleeping with a teen-age member of the tour. He's steered their bus to the Costa Verde Hotel, a remote jungle resort belonging to his friend Maxine, and while they lay over for the night, Shannon falls for a Nantucket portrait painter named Hannah Jelkes. Maxine is jealous of Hannah, and competes with her for Shannon's attention, while the church ladies "take steps" to relieve the reverend of his job. Soon he's not just a defrocked minister, but also an unemployed tour guide. When he tries to kill himself, Mexican hotel porters tie him to a hammock, and Hannah plies him with good conversation and opiating tea to help him through his so-called "voluptuous crucifixion."

It's a magnificent play, but it lasts three hours. Examples of Williams' talent for dialogue, metaphor, sex, and theology have been shoveled into the play like fertilizer; it feels like enough Tennessee for a year. Steven Coleman's set has a beautiful, rotted look, with bougainvillea overwhelming the rickety shuttered doors of the hotel, and the core acting is strong. Chris Phillips plays Shannon with an earthy, Southern-accented swelteringness, so his lines run together in a molten mass; and Yulah Cochran and Bruce Mackey play opposite him with an old-Yankee pride, as Hannah and her ridiculous wheelchair-bound grandfather, the "oldest living and practicing poet," Mr. Jonathan Coffin. The whole thing evokes a fall from grace in American society around 1940 with a sense of the absurd that beats the Burton/Taylor film, but some members of the audience left early on opening weekend, and one distracted blockhead in a back row was even heard dialing a cell phone. Not recommended for tourists.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Deceit and Desire
The Guardsman. Written by Ferenc Molnar. Directed by Albert Takazauckas. Starring James Carpenter, Lynnda Ferguson, Tom Blair, and Joy Carlin. At ACT, 450 Geary (at Mason), through June 7. Call 749-2228.

The honeymoon's over and those bedroom romps just aren't the same. What to do? You might hit up your local toy store for some vibrating eggs, strap-ons, or flavored body gels. Or you might shell out a little extra for some of those wonder tablets of the Viagra variety. But what of the days before plug-ins and pills? Director Albert Takazauckas gives us a clue with his ACT production of early-20th-century Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar's The Guardsman. When we enter the life of six-month-marrieds Nandor (James Carpenter) and Ilona (Lynnda Ferguson), we see that the post-nuptial honey no longer drips, and their union is filled with deceit and mistaken desire.

Both are actors. In between playing great romantics like Othello, hubby Nandor returns home to check up on the wife, whose eyes, he suspects, have taken to wandering up the legs of young guardsmen. He's all worked up, flip-flopping between damning Ilona to hell and kneeling, weeping, at her feet. His too-neatly-tied cravat and obsequious behavior, however, prove a poor match to Ilona's ice-queen attitude and dreams of dashing dragoons. Being the good thespian that he is, he dons tailor-made guardsmenswear and affects the style of a rake on the make -- twirling a nicely manicured, glued-on mustachio and performing exaggerated hand kissings -- to transform himself into Ilona's dream man. After some fanciful opera-box courting, Ilona falls for him, breathlessly exclaiming how her "nerves vibrate."

The role-playing, disguises, and grand quixotic courtings make for a drama that not only shows the extremes people will go to for romantic fulfillment, but it also speaks generally of the importance imagination's role has in erotic desire. It's the social institutions (marriage, the middle-class dream, and the likes) that screw things up. Confined to the domestic world, llona seeks out the pleasures of her imagination; Nandor, too, steps out of the role of an imprisoning middle-class husband to create an alter ego that will rekindle the romance with his wife. The moral of the story: Desire between couples doesn't lapse of its own accord.

J.B. Wilson's impressive stage designs -- the house windows and doors outlined with variously twisted white bars over black backdrops, and the opera box grandly suspended midair within a pocket of gigantic red-painted wood -- cleverly drive home the point. He shifts between clean, white, minimally ornamented home interiors (a scene so sanitized there's no room for dirty passion) to the blood-red opera box, where repressed passions are unleashed. Unfortunately, all of the desire and fantasy stuff is quashed by too many dragged-out scenes -- and by the off-kilter delivery of the main actors. Carpenter's supplications are too histrionic and Ferguson's mood swings grate with predictability. They spoil the spirit of Molnar's flamboyant, bipolar original.


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