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.

Struggling with life’s complexities in the quirky, hilarious, poignant George F. Walker double bill: Her Inside Life & Kill the Poor

Left: Catherine Fitch in Her Inside Life. Right: Craig Henderson & Anne van Leeuwen in Kill the Poor. Photos by John Gundy.

 

Leroy Street Theatre and Low Rise Productions join forces, with the assistance of Storefront Theatre, to present a world premiere double bill of two George F. Walker plays: Her Inside Life, directed by Andrea Wasserman, and Kill the Poor, directed by Wes Berger—completing The Parkdale Palace Trilogy after a successful run of Chance last Fall. Featuring sharply drawn characters living on the fringes of urban society, it’s classic Walker; a brilliant, quirky, hilarious and poignant look at life’s “losers” as they struggle with unique and complex problems. The compelling and entertaining double bill opened last night at The Assembly Theatre.

Her Inside Life (directed by Andrea Wasserman). A woman convicted of murder, under house arrest due to mental incapacity, discovers that the second man she thought she’d killed is still alive.

Former English literature teacher Violet (Catherine Fitch) is under house arrest for the murder of her husband Keith, who she believes was a serial killer. Found to be mentally incapacitated, she’s under the mandatory supervision of social worker Cathy (Sarah Murphy-Dyson); and the two are engaged in an ongoing battle of wills over Violet’s medication and erratic behaviour. Violet’s previously absent daughter Maddy (Lesley Robertson) arrives on the scene, wanting to help but struggling with her own demons. Violet longs to see her two grandkids—and Cathy and Maddy team up in an attempt to make that happen.

When Violet learns that the second man she thought she’d killed-her brother-in-law Leo (Tony Munch)-is alive and recently out of prison, her drive for exoneration and acceptance of her story is renewed. She believes that Leo was an accessory to Keith’s murders; and she’s convinced that her mother-in-law’s diaries have evidence to prove her theory. Trouble is, they’re written in Lithuanian. As Maddy and Violet attempt to translate the diaries, Cathy discovers Violet’s unorthodox means of getting information from Leo. And that’s when things get really crazy.

Fitch is a treat as the quirky, funny and highly intelligent Violet; impishly mischievous and charming, Violet is a tricky customer who knows how to play the system-and what she lacks in tact, she makes up for in chutzpah. Longing for some independence and dignity, and desperate to be believed, she fights the odds to be heard. Murphy-Dyson is a perfect foil as Cathy; put-upon, yet friendly, patient and professional, Cathy truly cares for and wants to help Violet—but she’s nobody’s fool and won’t take any bullshit. Robertson is both goofy and heartbreaking as Maddy; having been through the wars emotionally herself, Maddy is a struggling alcoholic with an asshole for a husband. She wants to help, but could use a hand herself. Munch’s Leo is a complex combination of low-level thug and hurt little boy; a reminder that bullies are what they are for a reason, there’s a soft, gooey centre under that hard shell.

Kill the Poor (directed by Wes Berger, assisted by Breanna Dillon and Marisa McIntyre). A young couple recovering from a tragic car accident are assisted by their building’s handyman, a disbarred lawyer who bites off more than he can chew with his plan to get justice.

As Lacey (Anne van Leeuwen) arrives home to continue recovering from a tragic car accident that took her brother Tim’s life, she and husband Jake (Craig Henderson) must now also figure out how they’re going to organize and pay for Tim’s funeral. When their building handyman Harry (Ron Lea) learns of their predicament, he offers to help; a disbarred, former crooked lawyer, he hatches a plan to create a witness in Lacey’s favour.

Meanwhile, police detective Annie (Chandra Galasso) wants some answers about what happened the night of the accident, but Lacey can’t even remember who was driving her car, let alone which driver ran the red light. The other driver, Mr. David (Al Bernstein), who came away relatively unscathed in his Escalade, shows up with a large cheque , claiming it’s to cover the cost of Lacey’s totalled car. And when Harry’s plan is tweaked to target Mr. David, the gang finds they’ve bitten off more than they can chew when they find out about his ties to organized crime. Then, things get really tense.

There’s great chemistry between van Leeuwen’s street-smart, grown-up Lacey and Henderson’s dim-witted, child-like, loyal Jake. Looking after her mom, keeping Jake on the straight and narrow, and now having to plan her brother’s funeral—all while still recovering from her injuries—Lacey finds reserves of strength even she didn’t know she had. Lea is a laugh riot as the eccentric, energetic Harry; shifting from waxing philosophical, to hilarious bursts of outrage, to devious scheming, Harry is fighting for redemption from a checkered past. Galasso’s Annie brings the edge and skepticism of a seasoned cop, softened by a strong sense of compassion; while Annie can be a suspicious hard-ass, the harshness of the job hasn’t dulled her drive to serve and protect. And Bernstein’s Mr. David is a compelling collage of menacing presence, dark comic wise guy and empathetic listener. David feels for Lacey’s situation, but won’t have his reputation and livelihood put in jeopardy by attracting unwanted attention in a possible vehicular manslaughter trial.

 

Once again, Walker reminds us that there’s so much more to people than meets the eye—including those we would write off due to socioeconomic status, chosen profession, or mental or intellectual capacity. In the end, we’re all just trying the best we can to make it through the day with some dignity and security—and some days are freakier than others.

Her Inside Life and Kill the Poor continue at The Assembly Theatre until November 18; both shows run every night, with alternating curtain times of 7pm and 9pm. Get advance tickets online or purchase at the door; it’s an intimate venue and a strong production, so advance booking strongly recommended.

Compelling, poetic, unflinchingly honest snapshots of working class people in Of Being Underground & Moving Backwards

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Heather Babcock at the launch for Of Being Underground & Moving Backwards – photo by Lizzie Violet

Where do the words
Interrupted
Of the working class people go?
Lost somewhere within their time
Interrupted.

This is the prologue to Heather Babcock’s chapbook Of Being Underground and Moving Backwards, a collection of short stories published by DevilHousePress.

A compelling and vividly detailed collection of works, Of Being Underground and Moving Backwards opens with “Break,” a first-person narrative from the point of view of a heart-broken, over-worked waitress soldiering on through her shift to pay the bills – and finding emotional release in an unexpected moment of solitude during a much deserved break.

The workaday characters – Wilbur and Christina in “Half Off” and Betty in “The Trees Turned to Glass” – struggle through harsh and unfair circumstances, doing the best they can to survive as they scramble to eke out a living, and find snatches of happiness and moments of ecstasy when they can. Constantly faced with judgement in the present and haunted by ghosts of the past, daydreams and fantasies become a welcome escape – an oasis from the dull, grey hopelessness of a world that sees them as disposable. And in “Rebecca,” we get a portrait of one of those judgemental, comfortably smug points of view, as wealthy record producer Conrad washes his hands of responsibility for someone he supposedly loved once.

There is beauty and poetry, grit and defiance, especially in the stories of family and loss. Jake in “The Dancing Bear,” escaping from his brother’s hospital bedside and into a local bar and a pretty woman. First-person memories of a mother, a dead sister and flowers in “Marking Words” and the title story “Of Being Underground and Moving Backwards;” the sharp edges of family history smoothed by nostalgic recollections made bittersweet by family tragedy.

And the closing story “Wind Pudding and Wagon Tracks” is parable-like in its insight into the human spirit; set in a place where everyone is treated equally and all are given the same choice – only each comes from different places with which to make that choice.

Of Being Underground and Moving Backwards is a beautiful collection of unflinchingly honest snapshots of otherwise invisible working class people; their everyday drudgery finding momentary respite in after-hours second lives, rich fantasy worlds, moments of recollection and in the imperfect love of equally lost souls.

You can find more of Babcock’s work online on her website. Babcock performs regularly around the city reading her work; coming up, she’ll be performing with Neil Traynor at I Got You Babe! And Evening of Poetry and Music with Heather and Neil at Hirut Restaurant on March 19 at 8 p.m.