Saw some outstanding indie theatre at its purest and best last night in Studio BLR’s punk rock adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire: A Streetcar Named Desire – The House Show.
The audience assembles in Dragon Alley, near the northwest corner of College and Dufferin. Soon, Eunice (Jasmine Bowen) appears bearing a stainless steel bowl, a sign that says $10 and another asking for spare change – the spare change she requests of us is the ticket price. Stella (Mackenzie Gruer) appears, and soon Stanley (Luke Gallo) and his pals Mitch (Alex Strauss) and Steve (Erik Kovalevskyy) stroll by, on their way to the bowling alley around the corner. Stella joins them. Soon, a well-dressed and lost-looking woman appears, toting a suitcase and desperately searching for information on her cellphone. This is Blanche (Lynne Rafter), just arrived in the Quarter to stay with Stella. Eunice offers assistance and beckons Blanche up the fire escape to the top floor apartment. The audience is instructed to follow – and watch our heads as we head up the steel steps. We assemble in the kitchen/living area of the apartment and Eunice leaves Blanche to go fetch Stella.
And thus begins a modern-day version of Streetcar, a punk rock tragedy that features a different live band at every performance. In this case, it’s the newly formed duo Lightning with Legs, acting as Stanley’s band/jam buddies. Given the intimate space – it’s a real apartment and can accommodate 20 patrons – this is Streetcar in extreme close-up. All the desire, brutality and personal tragedy are writ large and performed only a few feet – and, in some cases, inches – away.
The original script’s story of family dysfunction, personal scandal and financial ruin, steeped in brutality, alcoholism, desperation and desire, translates well into present day. It is easy to see how Blanche and Stella’s family home could fall prey to family circumstance and economic recession. The modern references to scandal, involving Blanche’s personal conduct and psychological damage, are nicely drawn with rumours of her questionable relationship with a student and moments where she finds herself haunted by the music that was playing when her first love/young husband died, a psychological ear worm that wreaks havoc on her already fragile psyche. Also notable is the fact that not much has changed regarding the double standard of the sexual dynamic between men and women: men are on the offensive, with women obliged to be on defence. Blanche breaks the rules with her aggressive flirting and scandalous past. And, even though such terms did not exist in the time of the original script, slut-shaming figures prominently in the climax of the play – and the sickening result of he said/she said skepticism and denial is that the victim is branded crazy and mistaken, or even worse lying.
The cast does an excellent job of bringing to life the colliding worlds of old-time rural chivalry and romance, and modern-day urban brutality with its unleashed primal urges. Rafter is heart-breaking as Blanche, vulnerably majestic and falling apart before our eyes. Gallo’s Stanley is a brooding caged animal, brutally sensitive and ready to pounce; and Gruer brings a lovely battered strength to Stella, a young woman caught between two forceful and passionate personalities, all the while navigating her own fears and desires. Strauss’s Mitch has a nice sense of internal conflict, unflinchingly loyal to his gravely ill mother and rowdy friends, and grappling with loneliness and longing to have a family of his own. Very strong supporting work from Bowen and Kovalevskyy as friends/downstairs neighbours Eunice and Steve, as well as Joe Bumbacco (Paper Boy), Peter Campbell (Doctor) and Anastasia LeSage (Nurse). And, if you’re lucky, the adorable house cat will also make an ad lib appearance, as it did toward the end of this performance.
A Streetcar Named Desire – The House Show continues for two more weeks – Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. – until October 6. Seating is limited and it was a full house last night, so best to get yourself to Dragon Alley early.