Richardson — Author, actor and master storyteller Jaston Williams steps into the characters of his past, up close and right before your eyes—and makes you laugh with him about everybody, including himself.
Meet the sweet and crazy people from Williams’ West Texas boyhood, his beginnings in theater in San Antonio, the literal roots of the Greater Tuna trilogy with co-author Joe Sears, and Williams' sojourn with an acting troupe of radical lesbian feminists in New Mexico. Williams struts them all out on the stage, in drag, in jeans and plaid shirt, and always in earnest in Maid Marian in a Stolen Car, his latest one-man show, directed by Sarah Richardson. It's onstage at the Eisemann Center’s arena stage, used for the first time in an in-the-round configuration for this show.
Williams and Sears performed the Tuna shows for over 30 years, and Williams' dives deep into the source of his inspiration: The people and incidents are taken almost piecemeal from the real, unique, flesh-and-blood folks he's encountered in life, reborn through his wildly productive and generously forgiving imagination.
He begins Maid Marion with a trip down the stairs of the theater dressed like his momma back when he was growing up in Lubbock. He shakes hands and pats a Tuna fan on the aisle, then takes up residence center stage, where he furthers the persona of a concerned mother. She arranges the three kitchen chairs in a cozy tête-à-tête and starts yakking to an imaginary neighbor about her 9-year-old son's rousing rendition of "You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun" out in the backyard. "Hearin’ him singin' like that'll make people think we're Pentecostals," she declares.
That’s not the worst of it. Young James Preston Williams, Jr. scorns football and rodeo riding, and refuses to consider raising a calf. His daddy, whose daddy was a real cowboy, makes disgusted cowboy grunts when his son talks about musicals. Young Jaston has no mechanical gifts, either. Just looking under the hood of a car, Williams confesses, "made me rush into the house and put on the Supremes."
Well, that kid obviously didn't grow out of it and "become a dentist," as his mother had hoped.
Williams continues the evening with a funny, ultimately illuminating story about his first real acting job in a San Antonio production of Hamlet. He reads a funny set piece from a script-summarizing Hamlet, and then performs what happens. Shifting his voice and posture swiftly, he embodies the actors playing the various roles. That sets us up for what happens when the young troupe performs the Bard's most well-known play early one morning at a San Antonio high school notorious for bringing together two warring gangs.
Gradually these tough kids begin to identify with everybody in the play, buzzing and talking and watching the swordplay with fascinated attention. Backstage, the whole cast thrills to the attention they're getting, suddenly alive with the realization that they've made the connection between these often-violent street kids and the torn Prince of Denmark.
When it's over, nobody claps. The kids just rush the stage and embrace the actors; everybody is thrown into an epiphany, a moment of grace, when everybody gets it and theater happens big-time. By now, Williams is sweating with the effort of being so many people playing so many roles so fast and narrating the story—but his face beams in the spotlight as we applaud this man's ability to put it all out there every time.
He takes a deep breath and immediately recounts how he met Joe Sears in San Antonio, and how they sat on the wide limbs of an ancient live oak in a public park, got a little high and talked about their respective boyhood experiences in West Texas and eastern Oklahoma, where Sears grew up. Williams says he always thought of Texas and Oklahoma as "one state divided by a football game." Later in the show, he speaks of the myriad characters born of those conversations; they later became the denizens of Tuna, Texas, our "third-smallest town."
He refers to the people he and Sears have embodied for three decades as part of his family,
"born of the marriage of the imaginations of two friends." After intermission, Williams appears at the edge of the stage in his Maid Marion drag—a long blue dress, a pointy hat and an outrageously long, curly red wig.
Williams then proceeds to tell the improbable, funny title story of what he learned about trust and multiple-personality syndrome while working among an edgy, unbalanced and brilliant troupe of hippie actors and writers in New Mexico. Again, he brings the moments to life by being everybody, but also making it easy for us to follow the action—an amazing feat.
He enacts many other stories of his travels and travails in the "heartland," and of his life today, living in Lockhart (south of Austin) with his partner and their adopted Chinese son. He closes with a hilarious story of theater folks literally laid bare, and a charming, light-footed, heartfelt "Thank you" to all the tech people in theater.
This scene is especially moving in that, as the lights dim, an assistant named Nick helps Williams change out of his Maid Marion costume and back into his Jaston Williams jeans and shirt and belt. This time, it's Nick doing the embodying, of the often-unseen people who make the show go on.
Williams' is a truly Chaucerian humorist, in that he never really laughs at his characters, but rather sees himself as one of the pilgrims along on the journey, enjoying the bizarre, the noble, the sexy and the just plain nutty—embodying all, but not judging any.
My kind of guide for any kind of trip, down memory lane or into the hinterlands of Lubbock, Lockhart, Tuna or Richardson.