As much as we may love them, the julep-drenched eccentricities of Tennessee Williams’ plays have always cried out to be burlesqued. I have fond memories of a hilarious parody called Swan, presented decades ago on the campus of San Francisco State University and starring the late Sigrid Wurschmidt. A mash-up of A Streetcar Named Desire and Suddenly Last Summer set in “South San Francisco,” Swan included a scene in which cannibal children brandishing dinner forks chased the principal characters around the tiny stage in mad pursuit.
Lately, the One Idiot troupe of the Upright Citizens Brigade has been offering audiences a lively one act called What the Horse Saw that is imbued with a similar sort of irreverent lunacy. Written by a team of writers (Jon Bershad, Aaron Burdette, Allie Kokesh, Kristy Lopez-Bernal, Nathan Min, Katelyn Trela) and directed by James McCarthy, What the Horse Saw is purported to be a missing Williams masterpiece only recently unearthed.
The play follows events on a sweltering day during World War II, when a messenger named Gus (Andrew Freed) arrives with bad news for a genteel Southern family: yet another of the clan’s many sons has fallen to the Germans (or maybe it was the Japanese—who can keep track?). The family’s matriarch (Maggie Ross) takes her son’s death in stride, but her reputedly long-in-the-tooth daughter Gert (Carrie McCrossen) is distraught. It seems she has a “lech” for Gus, and she hasn’t that many brothers left to die and give her a chance to rendezvous with him. Meanwhile, Gert’s equestrian-minded sister Hester (Caroline Cotter) plans her wedding to Gaiman Sanders (Davram Stiefler), the son of a fried-chicken entrepreneur from Kentucky. Gaiman, however, is a complicated fellow with strong urges of a different stripe (which he details achingly in his “yearning journal”).
Much ornate speechifying ensues. Also much smuttiness. But it’s not the absurdly over-the-top sexual imagery in the script that makes the comedy truly roll, but rather the ability of the writers and actors to capture the sound and feel of Williams’ writing and then turn it up a notch. McCrossen and Stiefler are especially good at duplicating the peculiar cadences of the playwright’s dialogue: those flights of poetic fancy and deep dives into characters’ tortured psyches.
When David Ebert turns up as Gaiman’s poultry-packin’ pa, the comedy moves to an even higher pitch. Ebert somehow makes this big daddy’s eyes look simultaneously wild and dead. It’s creepy but very funny. And we soon get a whole new twist on the old slogan “Finger-lickin’ good.”
A share of the success of What the Horse Saw belongs to director McCarthy for helping the actors find just the right comedic pacing. And thanks to all parties for knowing not to extend the show’s running time beyond what the material can bear. Nothing’s sadder than a gentleman caller who’s worn out his welcome.