“Night of the Iguana” comes to the new Gamm Theatre in Warwick

Tony Estrella, Sam Babbitt, Jeanine Kane and Deborah Martin rehearse

by Frank O’Donnell

If you’re involved with the production of a play or musical, tech week can be harrowing and scary. It’s when all the elements of the show must come together, and quickly, as opening night is coming up fast. For me, tech week is the best time to be an observer looking on.

As an actor, you’ve been rehearsing in a different space under the watchful eye of your director and stage manager. You’re wearing your own clothes, with an occasional costume piece thrown in. Most of the props you’ll work with are imagined or temporary. The changes in lighting and sound are talked about but not seen.

When tech week arrives, the actors move onto the set they’ll be working on, and start working in their costumes with their actual props. Not everything’s completely ready, and there’s a lot of stopping and starting.

Thanks to director Fred Sullivan, I had a front-row seat – okay, the only front-row seat – at a tech rehearsal of Tennessee Williams’ “Night of the Iguana,” the opening show in the Gamm’s new season, the first in their new home on Jefferson Boulevard in Warwick. It’s the sort of theater, says the Gamm’s artistic director, Tony Estrella, “we hoped for for a long time.”

They’d outgrown their old 130-seat space in Pawtucket. “We were at the end of our rope. We couldn’t find anything viable.” And then the old Ocean State Theatre shut down unexpectedly. “After they left, someone reached out to us. Having seen shows there, I thought it wasn’t our kind of theater space.”

OSTC had 400 stadium-style seats, with a proscenium stage. Think PPAC, only smaller. The Gamm was more a black box theater, which could move the seating around to accommodate different set configurations. The big question: how could the team at the Gamm transform OSTC’s space

It took a lot of brainstorming. First, they removed the proscenium arch, and took all the seats out of the orchestra section. Then, they extended the floor that was the original stage out over the orchestra pit and seating. They hung a curtain at the edge of the stage extension, and suddenly, they had two distinct theater spaces.

One in the redesigned stage area that’s about 20 feet wider than the Gamm’s space in Pawtucket, offering more seating and room for sets. And the other, a 300-seat auditorium.

“We made the most of the space. We can use the auditorium for concerts, things like that. Orchestras who don’t want to try to fill up a space like the Vets, with 1800 seats.” And the black-box side will handle the Gamm’s regular season. The auditorium would be available when the black-box side is dark. “It opens up a new revenue stream for us.”

Back to “Iguana.” Stage manager Robin Grady calls, “Stand by,” and gets a chorus of “Thank you, stand by,” in response. The lights dim, and jungle sounds starts up. “Iguana” is set in a Mexican beach town in the 1940s.

In a nutshell, the story focuses on T. Lawrence Shannon, a defrocked minister who’s working in Mexico as a guide for a third-rate tour company. He runs afoul of a traveling church group, and seeks refuge in a cheap seaside motel run by his friend Maxine. There he meets Hannah, and together, they explore the human condition.

Jose Luis Suazo, Tony Estrella and Fred Sullivan work out the rocking chair transition, while Deborah Martin walks away

One of the actors, Jose Luis Suazo, enters and heads for a hammock hanging in the corner. “Get into that like a pea in a pod,” says Sullivan. Suazo does, swings for a moment, then yells out his opening line, something in Spanish.

Sullivan says, “Let’s start again.” It’s not clear what went wrong, but Sullivan is reassuring. “It’s all new, no points off, just get your ass backstage.” As he comes past me, he jokes, “Those pills are working.”

Turns out what he doesn’t like is the opening with the hammock. “It seems like getting into the hammock is an event. I don’t want it to be an event. Let’s start it darker.”

They start over, and Suazo enters in the dark, climbing into the hammock like a pea getting into a pod. “I hate the hammock,” says Sullivan, stopping things again, wanting to try a different approach. “Yell first, then get into the hammock. This is gonna be like buttah, and we’ll never have to do it again.”

The scene starts again. Suazo enters, yells, climbs into his pod like a good pea, and Estrella enters as Shannon, the show’s main character. Then Robin Grady yells, “Hold please. We are due for a ten. Take ten please.”

Steve Kidd (standing) and Tony Estrella rehearse in The Hammock

This is a union show, and breaks must be taken. Steve Kidd, playing the part of Hank, uses the time to walk through a scene, miming his words as he hits his marks. Kidd is wearing a khaki shirt, untucked from his khaki pants. Sullivan goes up to him and says, “We’re getting you a belt. We want you to start neat and get sloppy as the play goes along.”

There’s a lot of costume changes happening on the fly. Sullivan looks at Suazo’s plaid shirt and says it looks “a little flannelly for Mexico.” The next time Suazo appears, he’s wearing a tropical shirt that would make Jimmy Buffet proud. Luis Minaya, playing an employee of the hotel that is the central location, is wearing long pants. Sullivan thinks he should instead be wearing shorts. Soon, Minaya’s pant legs have been cut off, with a hem pinned above his knees.

Sam Babbitt enters as Nonno wearing a three-piece white suit with a big black string bow tie, looking for all the world like Colonel Sanders. During a break in the action, Sullivan comes to the stage saying, “Samuel Babbitt, I’d like to order some original recipe from you,” earning some huge guffaws.

Babbitt responds, “I’ll make you a deal for a franchise, if you like.” Touché, Sam, touché.

Sullivan decides the suit is too bright, and Babbitt is quickly fitted with an off-white linen jacket and a very different tie.

The work is hard, and Tennessee Williams’ dialogue can be intense. Stopping and starting can kill the momentum of a rehearsal, but there’s no loss with this cast and crew.

Everyone chips in. While trying to figure out the best way to move a rocking chair off the set behind a set of doors through which a spotlight will shine, Estrella volunteers to take care of it. “Tony Estrella, that’s why you are artistic director,” says Sullivan.

“That’s it?” asks Brandon Whitehead, one of the actors.

“That’s all I could think of,” says Sullivan.

Deborah Martin closes out the first act of “Night of the Iguana”

Estrella finds a certain satisfaction in opening the new space with a Tennessee Williams piece. “He helped us transition to our space in Pawtucket when we moved there and opened with ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.’”

He’s excited about the new spaces. “We’ve got our risers and our curtains, just like the old space. We’ve achieved scale and maintained intimacy. And we’re able to open up to a new audience, while hopefully keeping our faithful audience.”

Estrella says there will be a lot of “pardon our appearance for a while,” but hopes that theatergoers will give the new Gamm a shot.

[The Gamm Theatre presents “Night of the Iguana,” directed by Fred Sullivan, through November 4 in their new space on Jefferson Boulevard in Warwick. Visit www.gammtheatre.org or call 401-723-4266 for tickets and information.]

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