KPBS AIRDATE: January 14, 2000
The “Kingdom of Earth” is a little bit “Psycho,” and a “Streetcar” runs through it. This quasi-gothic drama is a conglomerate of classics. It features a brutish, oversexed, Stanley Kowalski kind of ape and his half-brother, a fey nutcake who adores his dead mother and likes to dress up in her clothes. In other words, Tennessee Williams meets Alfred Hitchcock. This is Williams in his mid-to-late career slump. The rarely produced “Kingdom of Earth” was first published as a short story in 1967, and reconfigured as a play the next year, under the title “The Seven Descents of Myrtle.” In 1970, Williams collaborated with Gore Vidal on a screenplay adaptation called “Blood Kin,” which one critic called “an ambitious flop.” The play wasn’t much of a success, either. But it’s a dark romp, in a twisted sort of way.
The plot goes from quirky to bizarre, as Williams revisits the timeless triangle of his earlier masterwork. Whereas “A Streetcar Named Desire” focused on two women and a man, this one has a floozy at the center of a tug o’ war between two brothers. Part pragmatist, part fantasist, Myrtle is a fusion of Stella and Blanche. She’s nearly crushed between Lot, her frail and delicate but vindictive new husband, and Chicken, his coarse, sexual and dangerous half-brother. Lot has duped Myrtle into marrying him, even though he’s clearly not interested in women. But he’s very interested in making sure that his half brother doesn’t inherit the family homestead down on the Mississippi Delta, and he’s dragged Myrtle back there to ensure it, despite a forecast of torrential rain. As Lot lies upstairs gasping for breath, dying of tuberculosis, Myrtle is forced to confront her own destiny. And she hasn’t got much time. The flood-waters are rising and her ominous and terrifying new brother-in-law seems to be her only salvation.
Once again, Williams confronts the battle between spirituality and carnality, romantic illusion and harsh reality. He himself referred to this play as his “funny melodrama.” Some of the situations are so outrageous they’re soap opera absurd. Lot first sees Myrtle on that old TV tear-jerker, ‘Queen for a Day,’ and he marries her almost instantly, right on television. Chicken got his name because he survived the last flood by roosting on top of the roof with the other fowl ones. And the sledgehammer-subtle sexual references come in laughable, suggestive spurts.
Director Howard Bickle has had some fun with the piece, though he’s obviously taken the play very seriously, and it works like crazy. He offers ghoulish makeup for Lot, thunder you can feel beneath your seat, even a mini-“Phantom” falling chandelier. This is a real multisensory experience, with the blinding flash of lightning, the palpable vibration of thunder, the smell of cooking bacon, the sight and sound of unremitting rain.
Bickle has done a dazzling job, though it’s not clear why he so strongly underscored the sexuality and underplayed the racial overtones. But he’s cast impeccably. As Myrtle, D. Candis Paule may not seem quite as cheap and dumb as her character is written, but she puts in a powerful performance. Sean Robert Cox is so limp-wristed and prissy, he’s almost a caricature, but his creepy, Norman Bates-like cross-dressing and dying scenes are magnificent. In the complex, multilayered role of Chicken, Isaac Riddle is sensational — menacing and riveting. The tech work is wonderful and though this isn’t a Williams masterpiece, it’s lovingly mounted as if it were.
©2000 Patté Productions Inc.