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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Culture, identity & the meaning of the blues in Soulpepper’s powerful, entertaining Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Top: Alex Poch-Goldin. Bottom: Marcel Stewart, Diego Matamoros, Beau Dixon, Neville Edwards & Alana Bridgewater. Set & lighting design by Ken MacKenzie. Costume design by Alexandra Lord. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper takes us to 1920s Chicago, where the race, power and creative exploitation collide in a lively, tension-filled recording studio session in August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, directed by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu. This is the first time Ma Rainey has been performed in Canada since 1985, shortly after its 1984 premiere on Broadway.

A faint haze hangs over the dark, empty Chicago recording studio, conjuring visions of musicians and singers smoking between—or even during—takes (set and lighting design by Ken MacKenzie). Gradually, the space is peopled with the steady, quiet pace of familiar routine. Cranky, gravel-voiced studio owner Sturdyvant (Diego Matamoros) and Ma’s put-upon, ingratiating manager Irvin (Alex Poch-Goldin) get set up in the booth and on the floor. Then the boys in the band arrive: the bookish, philosophical piano man Toledo (Beau Dixon); the quiet, no-nonsense bassist Slow Drag (Neville Edwards); and fastidious, practical band leader/banjo player/trombonist Cutler (Lindsay Owen Pierre). Last to arrive is the energetic, stylish Levee (Lovell Adams-Gray), the new whiz kid on the trumpet, arriving late and showing off a new pair of shoes. The band hangs out in the rehearsal room downstairs (downstage), shooting the breeze and rehearsing a bit while they wait for Ma to arrive. The tension is already cooking, as Ma is running late, the play list is ever-changing, and the ambitious new kid—who has his sights set on starting his own band and recording his own music—doesn’t seem to think he needs to rehearse.

When the big energy, take-charge Mother of the Blues Ma (Alana Bridgewater) finally arrives an hour late, resplendent in a green dress (costumes by Alexandra Lord) with her young flapper girlfriend Dussie Mae (Virgilia Griffith) and sharp-dressed nephew Sylvester (Marcel Stewart) in tow, there’s more arguing and scrambling. An irritated policeman (Derek Boyes) has followed them into the studio, charging Sylvester with reckless driving and Ma with assault; Irvin quickly “handles” the situation, then finds himself under orders to arrange for repairs to Ma’s car. And then there’s the ongoing debate over which version of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” they’re going to record: the original or Levee’s version. And Ma wants Sylvester, who stutters, to do the spoken intro on the recording; a decision that’s greeted with thinly veiled annoyed cynicism. Irvin continues bouncing like a ping pong ball between Sturdyvant, Ma and the band, playing peacekeeper, and taking care of all the concerns and issues. Young Levee has eyes for Dussie Mae; Cutler is trying to keep the band on track, especially Levee; and Slow Drag just wants to get it over with and go home. Toledo has his books to keep him company, while Sylvester and Dussie Mae are thrilled to be there—and Dussie Mae has taken notice of Levee’s attention.

Conversations among the band range from the comic to the tragic, from day-to-day shenanigans, to stories of personal struggle and the lived experience of being Black in America. And though she comes off as a diva, Ma is a shrewd businesswoman; she knows what she does and does not have control over. Where she can have a say, you can bet she’ll have it! Commanding respect with her seemingly unreasonable demands, Ma navigates a world where artists—particularly artists of colour—are used up for their creative talents then cast aside; in the meantime, they’re paid a fraction of what they’re worth while white producers, managers and studio owners profit handsomely from their work. And, for Ma and the band, the blues are more than just a money-making music genre—it’s “life’s way of talking.”

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Virgilia Griffith & Lovell Adams-Gray. Set & lighting design by Ken MacKenzie. Costume design by Alexandra Lord. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Outstanding, compelling work from this tight, multi-talented ensemble. Bridgewater shines as the unstoppable, talented Ma—a force to be reckoned with. A large woman with a larger than life personality, Ma is an exacting professional; a fierce mamma bear when it comes to protecting loved ones; and a tender, generous lover. Like most women in her situation, a respected and highly popular artist like Ma has a reputation for being “difficult”—a charge that would never be levelled at a white male artist in her shoes.

Adams-Gray does an amazing job peeling back the layers of Levee. From a traumatized child to a volatile young man, Levee is confident in his talent and eager to make a name for himself as a composer and band leader—but, unlike his more seasoned bandmates, has yet to learn how the game is played. Stewart is a delight as the shy, child-like Sylvester; wide-eyed, and filled with wonder and joy to be in the studio. With Ma’s support and encouragement, and bolstered by his plan to send money home to his mother, we see Sylvester’s self-confidence blossom as he works hard through his speech impediment to do the best he can on the recording.

Though set in the 20s, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom speaks to the situation of artists today. While artists have gained more control over their work and working conditions, the industry still has work to do with regard to cultural and creative exploitation, and assigning labels of “difficult” on women and artists of colour. And we only have to look at Ma and Levee to see that artists must learn to play the game and be at peace over that which they cannot control—or be swept up in the undertow of their own frustrated ambition and expectations.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom continues in the Michael Young Theatre at the Young Centre—now extended by popular demand to June 9. Get advance tickets online or give the box office a shout at: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.