Desperation, desire & cruelty in the ferocious, electric, heart-breaking A Streetcar Named Desire

Amy Rutherford and Mac Fyfe. Set design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Rachel Forbes. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Soulpepper sets the stage on fire with a slow burn of desperation, desire and cruelty in its ferocious, electric, heart-breaking production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by AD Weyni Mengesha, assisted by Tanya Rintoul, and running at the Young Centre. The contemporary take on the Williams classic highlights the class, race and gender issues that make for simmering, then explosive tensions as a delicate, fragile woman finds herself adrift in the loud, bright, hard world of an urban working class neighbourhood.

When we first see Blanche DuBois (Amy Rutherford), she stands alone with her suitcase on a dimly lit, mostly bare stage. Action, sound and light erupt around her as the sights, music and ethnically diverse people of a big city take over the stage, setting up Stanley and Stella’s two-room apartment in New Orleans. It’s a dynamic, startling visual representation of culture shock for a woman who grew up on a plantation estate in rural Mississippi; and whose only contact with people of colour would have been household servants. Her gentle, crisp world of southern privilege now exchanged for the hard, steamy environment of a working class neighbourhood, she is alone and must rely on others to survive.

With the help of Stella’s upstairs neighbour and landlady Eunice (played with warmth and a suffering-no-fools edge by Akosua Amo-Adem), Blanche finds her way into Stella and Stanley’s apartment—and is mortified to learn that her sister is living in two rooms, separated by a sheer curtain. Stella (Leah Doz) is overjoyed and surprised to see her sister; Stanley (Mac Fyfe) is friendly, but on guard, and wonders how long she’ll be staying. Blanche, a high school English teacher, both withholds and reveals the reason for her stay, confiding to Stella that their childhood home and estate is lost, gambled away over the years by careless ancestors and lately needed to pay for the funerals of their last surviving family members. Stanley’s suspicions about Blanche’s motives for being there are piqued when he learns this, thinking Blanche may have swindled them out of their share of the estate.

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Foreground, clockwise from top: Lindsay Owen Pierre, Mac Fyfe, Gregory Prest & Sebastian Marziali. Background: Oliver Dennis, SATE & Kaleb Horn. Set design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Rachel Forbes. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Blanche looks upon this loud, hard new world with distaste and even contempt, trying in her own small way to brighten the place. Her description of Stanley and his poker pals reads like a field guide in the wild—and she fears her dear, sweet sister has “gone native”. Escaping into drink and reminiscences that are part memory, part fantasy, she is exhausted, desperate and grasping for a solution; she can’t go home and has nowhere else to go. She finds momentary distraction with the paper boy (Kaleb Horn), who possibly reminds her of her tragically lost girlhood love; and hope and a kindred spirit in Mitch (a boyish, bashful turn from Gregory Prest), Stanley’s long-time army buddy, over for a poker game with friends (Sebastian Marziali and Lindsay Owen Pierre). But, as Stanley unearths and reveals Blanche’s secrets, her world becomes even more unravelled—ultimately falling to pieces as he exerts power over her in the most brutal and cruel ways. Betrayed by those in whom she sought refuge, and her hopes for a new life destroyed, she must rely on the kindness of strangers (Oliver Dennis as the Doctor and SATE as the Nurse).

Mengesha’s direction takes the piece on a gradual crescendo toward its final explosive finale, with early moments of comic lightness fading into cruelty and darkness as Blanche’s past is exposed. And the multitasking ensemble is instrumental in creating atmosphere and flavour—including serving up some hot jazz, featuring SATE on sizzling vocals, and Marziali, Pierre, Dennis and Horn on various instruments (music direction by Mike Ross and sound design by Debashis Sinha). The sheet metal on the walls surrounding the playing area is a sharp contrast to the relative warmth of the apartment and its sparse, distressed furnishings (set design by Lorenzo Savoini and lighting design by Kimberly Purtell). And Rachel Forbes’ present-day costuming brings the story front and centre into the now of a city so modern, yet still so primal.

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Mac Fyfe & Leah Doz. Set design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Rachel Forbes. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Stunning, searing performances from Rutherford, Fyfe and Doz. Rutherford’s Blanche is a picture of wilting southern charm and privilege, the gentility and flirtation both a mask for the darkness and secrets beneath, and an armor against a world that feels hard, menacing and foreign to such a delicate, fragile soul. Feeling and fearing the relentless march of time and age, Blanche employs desire, magic and fantasy as a balm against death, trauma and desperation—like she says, desire is the opposite of death. Misunderstood, slut-shamed and betrayed, her final moments are deeply poignant and heart-wrenching to witness. Fyfe gives a finely crafted, nuanced performance as Stanley; an alpha male capable of explosive brute force, there’s sweetness and a lost boy quality to the man, especially evident in his relationship with Stella—where outbursts of rage turn to contrite, wailing pleas for reconciliation. Neither sophisticated nor educated, Stanley has good instincts and smarts; but his drive to dominate weaponizes his knowledge. Doz is both fierce and heartbreaking as Stella; caught in the middle between her beloved sister and a husband she’s crazy for, Stella is forced into the role of pacifier and peacemaker. More adaptable and resilient than her sister, Stella takes this new urban life in stride, rolling with the punches, and savouring the good times with the loved ones and music that surround her. But, in the end, taking Stanley’s side is devastating for both Blanche and herself, as well as for Mitch, who is also stuck in a Madonna/whore perspective of women.

The city is a hard place for a fragile soul. And while some may lose their troubles in music, liquor and sex—there still exists a clear divide on who is and is not allowed to dance away from death and toward desire.

A Streetcar Named Desire continues at the Young Centre until October 27; advance tickets available online, or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

ICYMI: Check out actor Amy Rutherford’s Artist Perspective piece in Intermission Magazine.

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Tennesee Williams classic in extreme punk rock close-up: A Streetcar Named Desire – The House Show

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Stella (Mackenzie Gruer), Blanche (Lynne Rafter) & Mitch (Alex Strauss) – photo by AnnaDan Zuo
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Stanley (Luke Gallo) on the fire escape – photo by AnnaDan Zuo

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.