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A CurtainUp Review
A Streetcar Named Desire
By Elyse Sommer
And so it was I entered the broken world
To trace the visionary company of love, its voice
An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled)
But not for long to hold each desperate choice.
--Hart Crane's poem, "The Broken Tower"
. . .the central paradox of theater is that something which starts off complete,
as true to itself, as self-contained and as subjective as a sonnet, is then thrown
into a kind of spin dryer which is the process of staging the play; and that
process is hilariously empirical.
--Tom Stoppard, in a 1999 NY Public Library lecture
on the theme of the pragmatism of theater.
My guess is that Williams, like this critic, would consider a more traditional interpretation a better introduction to his play than van Hove's. On the other hand, as an artist who reached his creative maturity during an era in which prudish convention prevailed, he might well appreciate van Hove's uninhibited production enough to overlook the director's tendency to co-opt. After all, he himself told a journalist that at a California revival, a woman reprimanded the man in back of her for sniggering at a serious play. As Williams, the sniggerer, explained it, "my tragedies were funnier than a lot of comedies." A lot of comedians agreed with him. As the play assumed the status of a modern classic and gained wide recognition via the movie adaptation, its three leading characters -- Blanche Du Bois, her crude brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski and the sister-wife Stella -- have become favorite subjects for impersonations.
After fifty years and countless productions throughout the world, the time indeed seems ripe for a truly fresh and adventurous staging of the story of the tragic Blanche, whose once wealthy Southern family's downward mobility and a disastrous marriage precipitated her own decline and her final attempt to escape despair in the sexually charged atmosphere of her sister's New Orleans tenement.
Unfortunately, this production like Eugene O'Neill's More Stately Mansions, which was given the vanhovian treatment two years ago, suffers from excess: the director's excessive control of each actor's every move, his penchant for repetition (especially of the production's "shocker" aspects) and stylization. The van Hove method of ordering Williams' information comes at a high price. It tends to corset the actors (especially Bruce McKenzie in the pivotal role of Stanley Kowalski). The big final confrontation scenes that mark Blanche's descent into the abyss play up cutting edge X-rated elements instead of igniting our emotional response. The above anecdote about Williams' laughing at his own dialogue notwithstanding, the bursts of laughter during much of the performance I attended, seemed prompted by all those self-indulgent directorial tricks and shticks. Too bad, for there's much here to leave you with a new appreciation of Williams' poetic and dramatic gifts.
Jan Versweyveld's minimalist set will immediately dispel comparisons to the legendary Jo Mielziner's set (and lighting) design. Its two focal points are the instruments (guitar, banjo, dobro, saxophones, clarinets and percussion) and a clawfooted bathtub set in a shallow pool of water. The play makes many references to Blanche's frequent hot baths, but here she bathes in full view (a symbol of Williams' vision of human relations as a battle of water and fire?). The two rooms of the Kowalski apartment are delienated with spot lighting. A couple of plain chairs offer occasional relief for the actors who otherwise sit, lie and crawl on the floor. It's all very dramatic and, if it weren't for the already mentioned repetition, quite apt. As Blanche, in an effort to hide the ravages of time and dissolute habits shuns bright lights, most of the scenes are cast in darkness -- the main exceptions being the musical interludes which, whether you like musical dissonance or not, are the most exciting and successful aspects of this hyper kinetic production, an interesting alternative to the original New Orleans flavored Blue Piano music.
Whether classical or revisionist, the strength of this play rests with the actors. Elizabeth Marvel, unlike either Jessica Tandy (the originator of the leading role on Broadway) or Vivien Leigh (of the London and movie version ), is a more robust and aggressive Blanche. She brings considerable power to her character but since she was clearly suffering from voice problems when I saw her, it's hard to give a fuller evaluation. Considering the many times she is forced to undress and get into that tub, most of the time getting her hair as well as her body wet, I hope her laryngitis won't turn into pneumonia. (As if the repetitive nude bathing weren't enough Mr. van Hove also makes her walk around in ankle-breaker spiked heels).
Bruce McKenzie as Stanley Kowalski has a better time of it than Blanche, that is in terms of getting undressed. He has only one nude scene (full frontal) and gets to break a lot of plates and a couple of chairs. He seems purposely cast against the grain, with none of the ominous sexuality that has been associated with the part. Where Marvel is a rather statuesque Blanche, his Stanley is a scrappy rooster. If you think he is reigning himself in so that he can jolt you out of your seat during the famous "we've had this date with each other from the beginning" scene, you'll be disappointed. The silk pajamas he wore on his honeymoon are a garishly symbolic prison orange and make him more ridiculous than scary. If van Hove's aim is to level the playing field in the "war" between Stanley and Blanche, he misses his target. Stanley's rape comes off like a scene in a murder drama, especially when he tosses Blanche into the tub à la Diabolique. On the other hand Mitch (Christopher Evans Welch), Stanley's poker-playing crony and Blanche's would-be suitor, ends his final confrontation with Blanche with the real thing (the movie that comes to mind here is The Last Tango). Welch, an actor whose work I've admired enormously, has some good moments but seems oddly miscast -- or too tightly directed.
The other major character is the younger sister Stella (Jenny Bacon), who left Blanche to tend to the crumbling family and is now torn between her passion for Stanley and her roots as a genteel Southerner. Bacon's portrayal is riveting and its insight points to how good this production might have been. As for the rest of the cast, the nurse and doctor who take Blanche away are reduced to voice overs. The minor cast members perform well, particularly Saidah Arrika Ekulona as the Kowalskis' neighbor, Eunice Hubbell.
You will either come away from this new look at an old classic yearning for a more traditional approach or find enough in it to offset its shortcomings. Either way, it is very much a theatrical evening that you won't soon forget.
Our review of Ivo van Hove's staging of More Stately Mansions, which also featured Jenny Bacon
Our review of Christopher Evan Welch's recent stellar performance in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
CurtainUp's Overview of Tennessee Williams' Career