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A CurtainUp Review
A Streetcar Named Desire
The Sydney Theater Company's Streetcar Makes a Stop in Brooklyn at BAM's Harvey Theater
Kennedy Center Review
But there are things that happen, between a man and a woman, in the dark, that sorta make everything else seem unimportant.—Stella.|
Blanche: What you are talking about is brutal desire. Just desire. The name of that rattletrap streetcar that bangs through the Quarter, up one old narrow street and down another. — Blanche.
I've only seen Cate Blanchett on screen and Liv Ullman, who is directing her in the latest revival of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, as an actress. But hurrah, hurrah. . .this is more than a a case of a movie star creating a ticket selling buzz for yet another revival of a wonderful but rather too often done play.
Cate Blanchett as Blanche DuBois
Blanchett's performance ranks right up there with iconic Blanches like Jessica Tandy and Vivien Leigh. Liv Ullman is an impressively subtle director. Her use of painter Edward Hopper's bare landscapes as her production's visual model has broadened the universality and deepened our perspective of a play most of us thought we knew as well as some of its famously quoted, almost cliche, lines.
This newly staged American classic by an Australian Theater Company and a Norwegian actress/ director fully deserves all the praise heaped on it by Susan Davidson when it opened at the Kennedy Center. Of all the Streetcars I've seen this one comes closest to getting it all right. Even though I saw a production fairly recently, there wasn't a moment when this one didn't feel remarkably fresh and revelatory. If I disagree with anything Susan wrote it's that the Australians occasionally didn't sound authentically Southern. I think their time spent on American soil and voice and text coach Charmian Gradwell have erased these quibbles.
Of ocourse, Blanchett is undoubtedly, and with just cause. the main reason for the run on tickets first at the Kennedy Center and now at BAM. It's watching her performance that makes this a genuinely thrilling theatrical experience. Her Blanche is magnificently heartbreaking — as much locked in a battle with her own self-destructive ways of dealing with being left adrift and alone in a changing world as with her hostile brother-in-law. Blanchett's fluttery, flirtatious but inescapably doomed Southern Belle underscores Ullman's Blanche-centric vision of a moth beating its wings against a wall (Williams' initial title for Streetcar was The Moth ).
For all of Blanchett's star power, this moth's hold on the audience is powerfully supported by the stellar ensemble. Most importantly Joel Edgerton is a Stanley Kowalski who doesn't just tilt at windmills in trying to do justice to the role forever saddled with 23-year-old Marlon Brando's debut performance that's been immortalized by the film version. As Susan said, Edgerton doesn't have the distinctive Brando-esque handsomeness but the chemistry between him and Blanche that leads up to the "date" he and Blanche have had from the beginning sizzles mightily. Powered more by anger and fear than sex, it is strongly reminiscent of the big battle between the husband and wife (memorably played by Ullman) in Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage.
The dynamic of Stanleys relationship with Stella is also finely nuanced by Edgerton to show an adoring protector who happens to deal with the threat to his marriage with primitive violence or what Blanche calls "bestiality." His "Hey Stella" scene which has been so often spoofed by comrdians that it has been known to lead to unwarranted titters in some revivals, retains its intended emotional impact. On the other hand, I can't recall a Streetcar that teases as many apt laughs from the text as this one does.
Robin McLeavy's Stella is warm and convincing as the younger DuBois sister who has comfortably abandoned her Southern Belle roots for the pleasures of the earthy life in a low rent New Orleans district but is torn between love for her sister and her husband. Tim Richards handles Mitch's shifts from being smitten to being disgusted and infuriated. His ultimate expression of grief reflects what we all feel as Blanche surrenders herself to "the kindness of strangers."
Ralph Myers' execution of the Hopper-like landscape isn't as pretty as the New Orleans evoked by other Streetcars: The ornate grill work of the stairway leading to the neighbors' apartment is now a fire escape, with an open window affording occasional glimpses of what goes on there and a plain rollup shade occasionally used as a scrim for silhouetted views. The inside of the Kowalski apartment is downright ugly. Its barrenly furnished rooms are smartly dominated by the bathroom where Blanche raises Stanley's temperature and cools her own nerves with her frequent and lengthy baths.
But who needs pretty when the result so effectively supports Liv Ullman's intentions (as stated in a program note) to carry out Tennessee Williams wish "to pull us out of our own angry darkness by allowing us to see, to recognize the vulnerability and the fear disguised violence or rudeness or carelessness or what may look like madness."
To learn more about Tennessee Williams' life and work, plus quotes and links to other Williams plays reviewed at Curtainup see our Tennessee Williams Backgrounder.
BAM Production Notes
A Streetcar Named Desire By Tennessee Williams
Directed by Liv Ullmann
Cast: Cate Blanchett (Blanche Du- Bois), Michael Denkha (Steve Hubbell), Joel Edgerton (Stanley Kowalski), Elaine Hudson (a Strange Woman), Gertraud Ingeborg (a Mexican Woman), Morgan David Jones (a Young Collector), Russell Kiefel (a Strange Man), Jason Klarwein (Pablo Gonzales), Mandy McElhinney (Eunice Hubbell), Robin McLeavy (Stella Kowalski), Tim Richards (Mitch) and Sara Zwangobani (Rosetta).
Sets by Ralph Myers
Costumes by Tess Schofield
Lighting by Nick Schlieper
Music and sound by Paul Charlier
Running time: 3 hours 10 minutes with intermission
A Sydney Theater Company production at the BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn; (718) 636-4100
From 11/27/09; closing 12/20/09.
For performance schedule see bam.org.
Tickets: $30, 65, 95 (Tues-Thurs); $40, 80, 120 (Fri-Sun)
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 12/05/09 matinee performance
Cate Blanchett as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire is magnificent. Blessed with a tall thin body and beautiful face, the international movie star imbues her character with gentility and grace. She is a well-dressed Southern belle, a lady one would think comes from landed gentry with all the benefits such a position bestowed on its members. There is no hint of the observations, delusions and lies she will tell about her life in the past and what it has become.
I don't want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic. I try to give that to people. I do misrepresent things. I don't tell truths. I tell what ought to be truth.— Blanche DuBois
As the lights go up, Blanche sits at the edge of the stage on her suitcase and says, "Why, they told me to take a streetcar named Desire and then transfer to one called Cemetery and ride six blocks and get off at Elysian Fields." Her slowly disclosed whereabouts are about as far from paradise as you can get. Blanche has come to the modest and decidedly lower class New Orleans apartment where her sister Stella and brutish brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski happily live, love and fight. What a come-down for such a "lady."
What makes this production so exciting is the ensemble of players and designers — all from the Sydney Theatre Company of which Blanchett and her husband, Andrew Upton, are Artistic Directors. Under Liv Ullman's extraordinarily perceptive direction, they are uniformly excellent even though (to this mid-Atlantic ear) their Southern accents do not always hit the mark.
For a play that most audiences have seen before, it is an enormous feat of ingenuity and sensitivity to extract from Tennessee Williams' brilliant script nuances and revelations that other readings have either overlooked or ignored. Ullman does this with ease. Every detail seems just right: Stanley's throwing a dirty broom on the bed where Blanche is to sleep. . . the Mexican Woman's languid pose on the fire escape as she recites "flores para los muertos". . . .the couple upstairs alternately bickering or engaging in foreplay in silhouette behind a window shade. . . jazz music and, yes, a crescendo — a rousing climax, as Stanley beds Blanche.
Given the strength of Blanchett's performance it is gratifying that she is well matched by Robin McLeavy's Stella, Tim Richards's Mitch, and particularly Joel Edgerton's Stanley. He does not have movie star looks, he doesn't preen around the stage showing off washboard abs as so many past Stanleys have done. Instead he personifies animal magnetism, or as Blanche remarks "bestiality."
Just when you thought "oh, no, not another revival," this Streetcar makes its way into a theatergoers conscience where it will be remembered for years to come.
Editor's Note: The Kennedy Center production was reviewed by Susan Davidson on October 31, 2009.
The production notes were the same as at BAM.
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