The view from the Grace Hall parking lot #3 of the dune and water tower above it would not be part of a Provincetown promotional flyer. But the sky was a saturated blue and the air was comfortably cool last Friday afternoon as David Kaplan, the longtime curator of the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival, assembled his small cast and minimal crew on the parking lot and dune to rehearse The Municipal Abbatoir, a dystopian sci-fi one-act play by Williams. It will be performed there on Thursday, Sept. 24, through Sunday, Sept. 27, as part of the pared-down 2020 edition of the festival.
If the view was bleak, like an industrial park in the middle of nowhere, that was fitting for the play, in which a rebellious young man, determined to kill the General, the totalitarian leader of his state, persuades a dutiful clerk to do it instead. The clerk was on his way to the “abbatoir,” French for slaughterhouse, to sacrifice himself. In this brave new world, citizens offer up their lives to be processed as food.
Standing in the parking lot, where the festival’s drive-in audience will be watching in their cars and listening to miked actors on FM radio, Kaplan rattles off notes to his stage manager, Alston Brown. “Make sure the hat is black,” he says. “Our first day with the gun. We were hoping it would glint in the sun. It glints!” Kaplan loves finding Alfred Hitchcock moments in this production, particularly long shots from early British movies.
Up on the hill, David Drake, artistic director of the Provincetown Theater, and Ben Berry, artistic director of the Peregrine Theatre Ensemble, are performing a socially distant dance of death. Drake, looking downtrodden in dark clothes and a fedora, plays the clerk; Berry is the young man in a do-rag with assassination on his mind. As they say their lines and go through their paces, cars drive by on their way out of the parking lot, a man walks his two dogs, and a local teen walks straight through the middle of the dune on his way to somewhere else, oblivious to the rehearsal happening around him. Neither Drake nor Berry misses a beat, but they smile about it afterwards.
“That’s why we’re rehearsing,” Kaplan says. “To include that in it.”
In the same way that Kaplan hopes to incorporate the flow of real life in his site-specific production, the Williams festival has adapted to the Covid pandemic. “Our aesthetic works within the confines of keeping the audience safe,” Kaplan says. The Municipal Abbatoir was originally planned for the Provincetown cemetery, and the theme for this festival is “Williams and censorship,” which Covid has largely silenced, as if playing the role of the oppressive state.
Instead of a cornucopia of international companies and a dozen plays, the Williams festival this year has just one, Municipal Abbatoir. Out-of-town companies are performing out of town, if they can; Penny Arcade will perform her rock cabaret act, “Longing Lasts Longer,” at the Bas Relief; and there will be presentations on Williams at the Bas Relief and Waterfront Park in the East End. The fest’s Tennessee Williams Institute will hold virtual seminars the following weekend, but Kaplan wanted the festival itself to be live events.
“This is what we do,” he says. “I’m not making movies or television. I’m not looking down on anyone who does virtual performances, but I don’t do them.”
The idea of a censorship-themed festival first came up when Kaplan was asked by Provincetown 400 officials what he’d like to do. “It really began five years ago, when I began wondering what theater was to the Pilgrims,” he says. “If there was any theater going on with the Pilgrims, it was in the woods, it was in secret, and they would have gotten spanked if they got caught. Theater was completely illegal in the Bay Colony, for all the usual reasons. It was where loose women saw men who shouldn’t be seen with them. There was the really bad example of men dressed in women’s clothing. And you could catch a disease by sitting in groups at the theater.” Again, that inevitable Covid connection.
But, like the Pilgrims, Covid was not able to completely silence the festival. “We were lucky that we could wait till late September,” Kaplan says. “We said in May that the drag queens and Rick Murray will figure it out for us. I didn’t want to be the first person to do live performance. I went to Varla’s first show and learned from it.”
Kaplan is looking to revive canceled productions next year, as the Williams festival moves forward. “It has taken nerves of steel and a real group effort,” Kaplan says. “I have a staff that believes in this. I have a board of directors that believes in this. We are creative people.”
Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival 2020
The Municipal Abbatoir, by Tennessee Williams, with David Drake, Ben Berry, Ian Leahy, and Darlene Van Alstyne: Drive-in at Grace Hall parking lot #3: Thursday, Sept. 24, 2:30 p.m.; Friday, Sept. 25, 1 and 3 p.m.; Saturday, Sept. 26, 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.; Sunday, Sept. 27, 12:30 and 2:30 p.m.
“Longing Lasts Longer”: Penny Arcade performs her rock ’n’ roll avant-garde memoir cabaret: Bas Relief Park, 106 Bradford St.: Saturday, Sept. 26, 7 p.m.
“Cut Blanche”: a talk and screening about the censorship fight over A Streetcar Named Desire: Bas Relief Park, 106 Bradford St.: Thursday, Sept. 24, and Friday, Sept. 25, 7 p.m.; Sunday, Sept. 27, 6:30 p.m.
“Tennessee Talks: Revolution”: reading by Jeremy Lawrence of Williams’s calls to political activism: Waterfront Park, 387 Commercial St.: Sunday, Sept. 27, 10:30 a.m.
Tickets: $40 per person per event, in advance, at twptown.org.