The Return of Slapstick Tragedy in “The Mutilated”

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Mink Stole and Penny Arcade in The Mutilated / Photo by Scott Wynn

Tennessee Williams’ one-act play The Mutilated just completed a month-long run-extended a week by popular demand-at the New Ohio Theatre in the Village. It’s an odd play, certainly, and that oddness was embraced and reveled in by the two perfectly cast stars: Penny Arcade and Mink Stole. This production, directed by Cosmin Chivu, followed the lead Williams provided with his script and, instead of searching for naturalism in the slight plot, used the work as an opportunity to experiment with tone and genre. Chivu put the characters through what amounted to a series of set pieces around the loose plot, an opportunity for the actors to throw themselves into moments of farce, tragedy, comedy, melodrama, a soliloquy or two and even a little action. The plot is, basically, bathos; as the two stars performed it, though, the over-heightened melodrama oscillated between a moving, down-and-out humanity and a detached irony about the limits of dramatizing these characters’ lives.

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Mink Stole and Penny Arcade in The Mutilated / Photo by Scott Wynn

The story centers on two aging women living in the seedy fringes of New Orleans’ French Quarter, longtime friends currently on the outs with each other. It’s Christmas. Arcade’s Celeste has just gotten out of jail for shoplifting, and her brother, after bailing her out, makes it clear that he’s done with her. She’s been evicted from her room at a bleak residential hotel where both women had been living and is unwelcome to take refuge with Trinket (Stole). Trinket, closed off from the world and lonely, is angry over cruel things Celeste had said about her “mutilation,” her mastectomy. Of course, since it’s a Williams play, this often-invoked physical mutilation exists side by side with the lurid spectacle of the characters’ emotional and psychological ones.

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When The Mutilated was first produced, as part of a double bill of one-acts in 1966, the evening was called Slapstick Tragedy, which nicely sums it all up. On first blush, in the just-closed production, Arcade brought the slapstick and Stole supplied the tragedy, but such easy divisions don’t do it justice. Arcade allowed the undercurrent of Celeste’s tragedy to erupt through her bawdy, comic performance. Stole, largely embodying a tightly-wound and broken Trinket, found a vein of dry, deadpan comedy.

Trinket and Celeste are not necessarily sympathetic characters; the pervasive fighting about mutilation and secrets easily could turn maudlin. It could also feel old-fashioned to a 21st-century audience. However, the actors turned this show into a more generalized fable about outsiders struggling to hold onto community and to find some equilibrium in the world (and about the usefulness of cash and plentiful wine). Turning away from naturalistic treatment of the women’s specific circumstances was a smart choice, and the outsized emotions displayed by Arcade and Stole gave the play an operatic sheen. (Soap operas are not called “operas” because of their verisimilitude to everyday life.)

Not to tip my hand, but I have previously, on these very pages, called Penny Arcade “incomparable” and a “national treasure.” No stranger to portraying (link is to an amazing and NSFW video)-and being-avant-garde demimonde outsiders with big personalities, she brought a combination of heart and mischief to Celeste. Arcade is best known as a downtown performance artist, partly responsible for inventing the art form. She also has appeared in plays since John Vaccaro cast her in Playhouse of the Ridiculous productions in the mid ’60s.

Mink Stole is most famous as the John Waters habitué since the early years-the trashy, filthy years. Although she hadn’t worked with Arcade before this production (it originated in Provincetown in September before coming to New York) Stole also acted for Vaccaro. She has a thriving film career, embracing her type-casting as “mother/aunt of the ‘gay.'” Her album Do Re MiNK was just released.