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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Blood & fire as women navigate a beautiful, untamed new world in the bold, darkly funny Deceitful Above All Things

Genevieve Adam & John Fitzgerald Jay: photo by John Gundy

The show must go on. Storefront Theatre’s partnership with the Favour the Brave Collective to present Genevieve Adam’s SummerWorks 2015 hit Deceitful Above All Things shifted venues to the Factory Theatre Studio after Storefront’s space closed earlier this year.

As you sit in the Studio’s adjacent lounge, you can hear birds and a strange, otherworldly music. Like the chiming of celestial orbs. Entering the theatre, the ceiling is covered with tree branches, reaching downwards—and the floor is the colour of blood spreading over snow. Two benches on stage and the audience is mirrored on either side of the playing space. Combined with the sounds, the setting is eerie and strangely calming at the same time.

Inspired by the little known story of Les Filles du Roi (King’s Daughters), and directed by Tanya Rintoul, Deceitful Above All Things takes us on the journey of two young French women as they cross an ocean to transplant their lives to New France (eventually Quebec) in 1667.

Meeting on the voyage, coquettish aristocrat Anne (Genevieve Adam) and the pious Marguerite (Imogen Grace) become close friends when Marguerite comes to Anne’s aid on board. Once arrived, Marguerite joins her at a settlement near Trois Rivières to serve in Anne’s new home, which she shares with her husband, tobacco farmer Amable (Brian Bisson). There Marguerite finds romance when a handsome half First Nations, half French coureur de bois, Toussaint (Garret C. Smith) saves her from a bear.

This attachment is much to the dismay of Mme. Etienne (Madeleine Donohue), settlement den mother and matchmaker; she organizes and watches over the newly arrived women and arranges domestic partnerships—all for the glory of France and to populate the colony. Also relatively new to the settlement is Father François (John Fitzgerald Jay), a Jesuit priest who lives at the nearby Mission. And befriending Marguerite is Catherine (Joelle Peters), a young First Nations woman who was orphaned as a child and raised by the “black robes” at the Mission.

The storytelling weaves past and present, where we learn how the playful, intimate relationship between Anne and Father François turned passionate in France; the two reunited when he pays a visit to Amable’s home. Both Anne and Marguerite are pregnant, and Toussaint has travelled north, following the desire of his soul even more so than the work. Marguerite has adapted well to this wild new world, with the help of Toussaint and Catherine. Less of a pioneer at heart, Anne toys with two lovers like a careless child who goes where her desire takes her—and may find her true passion too late. Ever present is the threat of attack from an Iroquois war party, as men band together to take back the land that was taken from them by force by other men. This is a harsh, at times unforgiving, and also fertile and beautiful new world—and its inhabitants must adapt in order to survive.

Compelling performances from the cast with these conflicted, passionate characters. As Anne, Adam is fiery, seductive and irreverent; Anne’s aristocratic cockiness is subdued somewhat in the wilds of a burgeoning Quebec colony, but her passion still burns hot. Polar opposite, yet complementary to Anne, is Grace’s quiet, introspective Marguerite; deeply loyal and kind, there’s a fierce heart underneath—that is her source of strength and resourcefulness.

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Garret C. Smith & Imogen Grace: photo by John Gundy

Jay brings a great sense of conflict to the learned, forward-thinking Father François; a devout and spiritual man, his passions get away from him with Anne—making for a tortured soul that longs for absolution and redemption. Smith’s lovely layered performance as Toussaint gives us a man both spiritually and culturally conflicted; called “half-breed,” he doesn’t really belong anywhere and goes where his bear spirit calls him. But now, with Marguerite and the baby, he may have finally found a home.

Peters brings a nice sense of calm watchfulness to the enigmatic Catherine, at times unsettlingly so; a woman of few words, like Toussaint, spiteful rumours about her family follow her—and she must act as her spirit dictates. Donohue gives a sharply honed performance as the tight, proper Mme. Etienne; and Bisson gives Amable a strong and simple, but affable, dignity.

Deceitful Above All Things tells us a story of the early days of what would eventually become the province of Quebec, Canada—with some seldom seen perspectives of women and First Nations people. It’s a timely story, with Canada’s 150th birthday being celebrated this year.

The production also features beautiful work from the design team to create this hauntingly beautiful, dangerously harsh world: Nancy Anne Perrin (set), Logan Cracknell (lighting), Adriana Bogaard (costume) and Deanna Choi (sound).

Blood and fire as women navigate a beautiful, untamed new world in the bold, darkly funny Deceitful Above All Things.

Deceitful Above All Things continues in the Factory Theatre Studio until Feb 26. Find ticket info and purchase advance tix here.