Friday, December 11, 2009

This isn't your parents' Streetcar

Wednesday night we saw the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” at the BAM Harvey Theatre. Liv Ullman (a Norwegian) directs Australian actors in this very American play, creating a celestial evening Tennessee Williams would have swooned over. It is nothing short of brilliant. In the ladies’ room after the performance, I heard one of the ushers say that they change it up a bit every night. Unlike the Hamlet presently running on Broadway, this production is apparently not set in stone, but insists on living on the edge. No wonder it sold out long before it opened.

Cate Blanchett’s Blanche is ethereal and earthy. Not ethereal like early Kate Hepburn and not earthy like Anna Magnani. This Blanche is ethereal and earthy at the same time, in gradations, moment to moment. The voice of Blanche Dubois flows from deep modulated tones to breathy metaphor; she rumbles gruffly in lust or anger, then lightens her voice to gossamer. Her body, imprisoning her fragile spirit, is grounded on the earth whether she likes it there or not. Blanche flirts, she flaunts, she cowers and cringes, she floats, she flees.

Stanley is indeed brutish. He’s of the earth, and therefore he’s actually appealing to Blanche on one of her repressed levels – except, of course, that he’s a grown man and not a 17-year-old boy. Boys are Blanche’s weakness. Boys like and unlike her romantic and tragically deceased husband, Allan.

Look, I circled right back to celestial Cate’s Blanche. Everything about this production does that, but not in the way that “Jude Law’s Hamlet” or “Ian McKellan’s Richard III” did. No one is stepping back to let Ms. Blanchett have all the focus; they’re all not just on the mark − they’re active, right there in our faces, right there in Blanchett’s face, challenging her for the stage. Ullman fills the stage with hearty, solid, not-in-the-slightest-bit-ethereal actors from Blanchett’s home theatre company (of which she is co-Artistic Director), the Sydney Theatre Company (a.k.a. STC). And what a company it is.

“Stella for Star” is embodied by Robin McLeary. She didn’t act for a moment. She just was Stella. She’s the polar opposite to Blanche, smaller but not petite, she moves with grace but not delicacy, she thrives on the new surroundings, the brutish husband. Blanche needs to be waited on and Stella needs to wait on … someone. At the end of the play her choice is clear. She will mourn for her sister, but she will wait upon her husband.

Across the board, we do not compare any of the actors on stage for those we have associated with the roles for multiple decades. Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Kim Hunter – no matter how riveting they were (and they were), they do not haunt the stage, the theatre, the cast.

Joel Edgerton is Stanley Kowalski, a working man, and proud of it. All American. Blanche keeps referring to his “officer’s” uniform, but Stanley Kowalski was a Master Sergeant, not an officer. Sergeants take offense at being called “officers.” Blanche would have dated officers, “gentlemen.” Stella married the Master Sergeant and entered an entirely different world. Blanche’s caste system is rigid; Stella, with her husband, is all-American in her belief in a classless society. Blanche would snicker at the term and wave her fragile, graceful hands.

Joel Edgerton is rude, crude, brutish, and perfectly reasonable. The man should be able to use the sole toilet in his home when he gets home from work. I always felt that Napoleonic Code would keep me away from Louisiana for all time, but it makes common sense when Edgerton’s Stanley says it. Practically like equality of the sexes.

Mitch, as played by Tim Richards, is physically solid and psychically delicate, like the soul-mate he will doubtless remember Blanche as in his romanticized reminiscences in years to come. Mitch, who lives with his invalid mother, no longer in the first blush of youth, shy around ladies, is softer than the men in his immediate social circle. Blanche may wish to appear as the belle, the butterfly, light as a feather, but she is socially masculine in her relationships with the opposite sex. The Mitch Blanche meets, if not virginal, would only make love when in love. The Mitch she leaves behind veers toward cynicism but breaks down in tears as his and Blanche’s dreams are broken.

Tim Richards’ Mitch is solid, fit, dresses much better than the other men in his social circle, as if he wishes to be or imagines himself above it. Stanley, Mitch’s co-worker and fellow survivor of the 241str division, is at the center of that social circle. Stanley is captain of the bowling team, his home is where the poker game is, Stanley is the Alpha Male. Tennessee Williams may never have heard that term, but he wrote the epitome of the Alpha Male in Stanley Kowalski. Kudos galore to Joel Edgerton for personifying both.

As in another production of Streetcar, the opening is alive with secondary characters – in this production, Sara Zwangobami as Rosetta and Mandy McElhinney as Eunice Hubbell start the play on a high note with their raucous laughter. We don’t know what they’re laughing about, but we’re sure it’s juicy. We don't see much more of Rosetta, but Mandy's Eunice is another earthy Williams woman, living a full life in that upstairs room.

The last production I saw that started at such a high point as this one went downhill quickly. In this production, though, Cate Blanchett walks across the stage, classy, sensitive, desperate, and opens up reality to include more than one dimension. Two or three, maybe more. The woman is sheer lithe power while appearing light as a feather, fragile as an eggshell. And, she beats out every man or woman I’ve ever seen in the sheer perfection of appearing drunk on stage. I mean really drunk, fighting that losing battle to remain upright, to enunciate (and she enunciated perfectly, mind you, not a syllable lost), to keep her head level atop her neck. Blanchett was as Sisyphus toiling against the rock. The beautifully, rationally, truthfully staged scene preceding the penultimate scene of the play was terrifying because we all knew what was coming, even if this was our first Streetcar. The fencing, physical and verbal, between Stanley and Blanche is blatantly sexual. Who’s the cat, who’s the mouse? Both are drunk, unkempt, feline in their movements. You know you’re going to see someone’s bare bum eventually.

Stanley the Alpha Male takes what he wants at the moment, regretting nothing. We sit and watch helplessly, knowing Blanche should leave now, leave, go upstairs to Eunice, don’t be alone with Stanley. Just the fact that she’s in Stanley’s bedroom (not the more public, presumably ‘safer’ kitchen) when Stanley comes home begins the ugly dance that ends as fated, followed with an incredibly beautiful stage picture after the act: Stanley face down on the bed, naked but for his brown socks; Blanche sitting on the edge of the bed, her back to us, her head and shoulders hanging down, perfectly sober now, and broken. This moment appears after a fade to black, then back up, as gradual as the sunrise. The scene disappears in the same sad tempo. It is devastating.

Sound, lighting, musical choices, costumes: All clicked, were mostly seamless and potentially unnoticed. The lighting design by Nick Schlieper had the quality of a black and white film through a rain-soaked window – nothing was crisp in this un-air-conditioned New Orleans, everything was just a little soggy. Set design by Ralph Myers was all that was needed, the smidge more provided by the direction and acting in the space. The fire escape (a necessity in a Tennessee Williams play), the upstairs window, the bathroom at stage center. Osborne may have been the original ‘kitchen sink’ playwright, but Tennessee made magic with a bathroom. Happily we do not see Blanche bathing not ten feet from the audience and buck naked. We only saw Stanley in that tub on poker night, given a cold shower by his buddies before the infamous scene of Stanley crying “Stella!” toward that upstairs window where we see a silhouette on the shade. Kazan and those who came after him made that scene about Stanley. But Wednesday night the scene, like the rest of this production, was not about Stanley. The figure we see on the shade is not Stella. It is a sagging Blanche. Her silhouette is more emotive than most actors’ faces.

And oh my, that young man. Any woman who’s ever taken an acting class (OK, any woman of my generation) has tried to do that scene between Blanche and the young man collecting for the newspaper. Wednesday night, for the first time, I saw Blanche’s dead husband Allan, not in the boy, but in Blanche. He was in the room of Blanche’s mind, and I was an eavesdropping peeping Tom, and I am ashamed. I’ve never seen that scene as beautifully and heartbreakingly rendered.

I hear tell that a certain New York magazine complained that Liv Ullman’s production cut the closing line about “7-card stud.” Semi-purist as I am, I so do not care. That line was Stanley’s story. This production belonged to Blanche. I want to be unable to speak at the end of this play. I want my breathing to be affected, I want to be unable to hoot or holler or even cry ‘Brava.” The final scene closed on Blanche going to her next visit, not on Stanley. This production was Blanche’s story. The light focuses on her face in her view of her world, and the moon, then softens to darkness.

Cate Blanchett is Artistic Director with Andrew Upton of the Sydney theatre Company. Helluva company. Every performance was sterling. There were no echoes of some company who appear to have sent their second string to Brooklyn. Each character was fully realized and would have made Tennessee weep for joy. He wrote poetry as prose and waits for actors to understand that. Everyone in the STC got it, and gifted it to us. Thank you.

[I’m only slightly bothered that a bunch of Aussies totally entered into and inhabited and embodied what I have always considered uniquely American characters in a play by a uniquely American playwright. Olivier tried it but failed. These actors that no one in the U.S. has ever heard of (besides, Blanchett, and even she is not as much a ‘star’ to American audiences as, say, Jennifer Love Hewitt) have accomplished what many an American actor has not. It’s kind of embarrassing, from the American POV. From an audience POV, however, frabjous frakking day!]

In the BAMbill (BAM’s playbill), Liv Ullman wrote a lovely “Letter to the cast, designers, and crew” (as opposed to Directors Notes that so frequently do not resemble the production they allegedly describe) in which she gave a little history (without dates) and some praise to Tennessee Williams. But there’s something lacking.

The cast and crew have bios. All of the people who created this production are there, and they deserve goodly space for their professional bios. I searched and searched looking for “Tennessee, for “Williams.” Nothing. The playwright did not rate a bio? So that’s the flaw in this production: the missing bio of the brilliant tragic dramatic funny melodramatic playwright, the man who created the greatest women in the American theatre of his generation and probably many more. I am appalled. Tennessee Williams graciously gave us extraordinary ordinary people, magical language, great stories. Reading Tennessee Williams' plays, I fell in love with his voice, his lyricism, his truth (which is not reflected in film versions of his plays, and often wasn’t even reflected in the performance scripts from the Broadway productions, to the shame of American society as it was – I have no doubt rightly – understood and interpreted by Elia Kazan). Give the man a bio.

That’s my negative. Not the production. A post-production issue. As for the play, I’d say, “Swim the East River to BAM” to see this if I didn’t know it was sold out. Instead, find out what city they play next and go there.

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, Directed by Liv Ullman, from the Sydney Theatre Company to BAM, Wednesday December 9, 2009.

~ Molly Matera, signing off. Thanks for stopping by.


  1. How fascinating to read such praise for a production
    that I saw at the Kennedy Center, which fell so far short of your description, it made me doubt my own reaction, which ranged from boredom to disappointment.
    My first problems were the set itself which seemed like it was constructed for a more intimate stage, therefore out of proportion. The bathroom was in the middle of the room and hardly gave the impression that Blanche was soaking away and deaf to Stanley's loud complaints. And Stanley was always loud. In fact the whole cast with the exception of Stella, seemed to bang away on one loud note.
    I eagerly anticipated the arrival of Cate's Blanche. She reminded me of Popeye's Olive Oyl, all elbows, knees and feet. I saw no shades of a woman who was used to commanding the attention of men through her libidinous charms. We're talking about a woman who was probably bi-polar and honestly, I saw nothing of those shades of mania in Cate. She walked in looking deflated. As far as chemistry with Stanley, zip. He was always yelling, and charmless so why would she.... I hated the staging of the sex scene, there was no sense of this being an inevitable event. No "I hate you and I want to fuck you" from either of them. It was sad, ok, but not scary and exciting as I think it should be, because they are both angry and sad and highly sexed people. Cate never looked slightly hysterical or manic or scared, she looked wounded and I found that utterly boring, but I am aware that I am in the small minority and mostly feel sad that somehow I did not see what you did!

  2. Hi, thanks so much for responding. I don't know what the Kennedy Center stage or space looks like, but at BAM's Harvey, the set was not too intimate for the space; rather it allowed us to look in not only on the Kowalskis but also on the landlords upstairs through that well-placed window. While not intimate, the Harvey is smaller than BAM's Opera House, so perhaps the scale worked for us better than it could in the K.C.
    As for Cate's Blanche, while you saw elbows and knees, I saw fragility in her movements that translated to her psyche. I don't think in terms of modern psychiatry's definitions of people's behavior -- before the word 'bipolar' was invented, other people and actresses diagnosed Blanche. Those performances didn't work for me. Tennessee didn't write a 'bipolar' woman, he wrote a broken one.
    I believe this production is dynamic and changes nightly -- this may play havoc with a stage manager calling cues, but would certainly keep the performances fresh. I saw the play on a really good night, and I'm sorry if the night you saw the play was not as focussed. That's live theatre for you. Ain't it grand.