A Streetcar Named Desire
Circa Two, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington
24/11/2007 - 22/12/2007
"I’ll tell you what I want. Magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don’t tell the truth. I tell what ought to be the truth. And if that’s sinful, then let me be damned for it!" – Blanche Dubois
After three successful seasons of The Glass Menagerie and the heavenly sensation Angels in America at Downstage Theatre in October, Almost A Bird Theatre Collective is back with another classic masterpiece of Tennessee Williams: A Streetcar Named Desire.
Streetcar tells the story of Blanche Dubois, a fragile southern belle who visits her sister Stella and Stella’s working-class husband Stanley Kowalski. Blanche, who hides a past not quite as pure as she’d like people to imagine, complicates matters immediately. Stanley suspects she’s trying to swindle the couple and a power play between Blanche and Stanley arises. Her neurotic, genteel pretensions are no match for the harsh realities symbolized by her brutish brother-in-law.
Streetcar takes a ride into the very primal and animalistic sides of human nature with the destination of ultimate ruin. "It’s like watching a volcano erupting in front of you," says director Willem Wassenaar. "The ingredients of this play are so extreme – it forces us to acknowledge the killer with-in ourselves, and that’s exhilarating theatre! Steamy, hot and sexy, A Streetcar Named Desire is certain to heat up the Wellington summer."
Starring Ryan O’Kane (Insiders Guide to Love, The Hothouse, Welcome to Paradise) as Stanley, Renee Sheridan (The Glass Menagerie) as Blanche, Jess Robinson (The Glass Menagerie) as Stella, Jade Daniels (Fool for Love, Itchy Feet, Settling) as Mitch.
Students, Senior Citizens & beneficiaries $28
Friends (until 6 Dec) $26
Groups 6+ $30 each
Groups 100+ $27 each
Student stand-by $18
$20 Preview Fri 23 Nov
$20 Special Sun 25 Nov
Blanche DuBois: Renée Sheridan
Stella Kowalski: Jess Robinson
Stanley Kowalski: Ryan O'Kane
Harold Mitchell (Mitch): Jade Daniels
Eunice Hubbel: Sophie Roberts
Steve Hubbel: James Kupa
Pablo Gonzales: Gene Alexander
Negro Woman: Gene Alexander
Doctor: Gene Alexander
A Young Collector: Gene Alexander
A Mexican Woman: Gene Alexander
DESIGN & CREW
Set & costume designer: Daniel Williams
Co-designer & costume construction: Emily Smith
Lighting designer: Natala Gwiazdzinski
Lighting & sound operator: Mike Norman
Sound designer: Gene Alexander
Producer: Sophie Roberts
Publicist: Brianne Kerr
Visceral, imaginative and highly entertaining
Review by Helen Sims 16th Dec 2007
“Hot. Sexy. Cruel. Tender. Savage. Raw.” This was how the Almost a Bird Theatre Collective production of Tennessee William’s classic play was billed. They seemed to have set themselves an ambitious challenge, mining the primal out of sublimely rich material. This was well achieved, from the impassioned performances, to the primary colours in the set and costume design and music that broke down into discordant notes. Youthful energy and enthusiasm abounded and once the play warmed up it was an intense ride all the way to its famous ending.
Comparisons with the group’s earlier production of William’s work are inevitable. Compared with The Glass Menagerie this was a far more polished and sophisticated production, although once again a love for the source material and exquisite design were evident. Whilst the material might not be particularly new, their approach is fresh, bordering on combative. This is reflected by the considerably younger audience that packed out Circa 2 on their opening night and their enthusiastic response. It’s pleasing to see that despite wanting to offer a production that breaks out of convention Wassenaar and his team are not tempted to force untenable interpretations on the work. Instead they keep it relatively pure and stripped back, aided by carefully selected statement props, set and sound.
The audience met a rich red set when they entered the theatre, with assorted red bric-a-brac piled up in a corner. Much of this was pulled down and used at various points in the play; the remainder constituted an upper level space for the characters to retreat to and also served for the Hubbel’s house. The lighting box and exits of the theatre were also used well, managing to overcome some of the restrictions of space faced in this smaller venue. However, I still felt that a production this rich deserved a more expansive space to fulfil its potential grandeur, but they made the most of what was available.
Into the sea of red burst Stella and Stanley Kowalski, (Jess Robinson and Ryan O’Kane respectively) and their neighbours the Hubbels, dressed in washed out green and grey tones. The play started confidently, but I lost several lines due to accents and modulation issues. When Blanche DuBois (Renee Sheridan) enters she is a complete contrast to their working class earthiness. Dressed entirely in white and lugging an enormous trunk of the same hue Blanche is decayed grandeur of a bygone time personified. However she soon reveals that she can be quite as angry and emotional, flying into rages and hysteria over inconsequential things. Stella panders to her needs while Stanley grows increasingly enraged. Deception ensues and increases after Blanche acquires a beau in the form of naïve Harold Mitchell (Jade Daniels). By half time there is so much tension in the air that disaster seems inevitable, and it hurtles towards it. I felt that the second half was less assured, particularly the ending – I question why Blanche didn’t exit out of the same way she came in rather than through the visible Circa car park and also wondered why the play ended with a slow fade on a minor character. This seemed to undermine the quality that had come before and sharply reminded me that I had been watching a play in a theatre.
However, the show was overall so excellent that these quibbles could be put to the side. A particular highlight for me was the music and sound effects generated by Gene Alexander, who also fills a number of small roles. His piano playing was excellent, at times haunting and at others rollicking along. Renee Sheridan as Blanche carried much of the play, although she was at points a little too harsh in her vocal tone and facial expression for my liking. Ryan O’Kane was a seething, tightly coiled and menacing Stanley, in perfect contrast to Jess Robinson’s quiet, domestic and peaceful Stella. Passion between these two seemed genuine, as did the uneasy tension between Stanley and Blanche. Jade Daniels was suitably pitiful as Mitch and Sophie Roberts and James Kupa brought some comic relief as Eunice and Steve Hubbel. Unfortunately at several crucial moments the faces of the actors were inadequately lit and action that took place down on the floor couldn’t be seen by those sitting beyond midway back. I put this down to inexperience in lighting design – it’s possible to keep the design dark and moody but still see everything – and an unawareness of the rake of the seats in the space.
With a little bit more experience and ironing out of kinks the plays of the Almost a Bird Theatre Collective will be even more impressive. As it is, Streetcar cements their current reputation for visceral, imaginative and highly entertaining productions of quality plays.
Originally published in The Lumière Reader.
Copyright © belongs to the reviewer
Review by Lynn Freeman 29th Nov 2007
It’s a powder keg, hot as hell New Orleans in mid summer, impoverished part of town, people crammed into claustrophobic airless apartments, ever increasing cycles of violence. Tennessee Williams is a genius wordsmith and a fearless writer. When performed as well as this one is, A Street Car Named Desire leaves you feeling as emotionally battered as poor Blanche, and wearing the bruises of poor Stella.
Wessenaar wants us to feel as crammed in as Stella, Stanley and their neighbours, so his designer Daniel Williams has piled on top of each other household goods – from a toilet to a birdcage to a clock – and they double as stairs as the actors move from one level to another. They are all painted red, emphasising the red hotness of the weather and the tempers.
On opening night things were a bit slow to start, and words were drowned out by the dragging of furniture. But once all were settled in, and the heightened style of the production worked its magic, the stage really was set for a memorable night out at the theatre.
The two lead women gave their all. Renée Sheridan belied her youth to carry off the demanding role of Blanche DuBois, the emotionally scarred and faded southern belle. Blanche talks of being soft and shimmering but Sheridan show a real edge to the woman and a great sense of humour, which sit comfortably alongside her pretentiousness and vulnerability.
Full credit also to Jess Robinson, with Stella’s character being what we would now call a classic battered wife syndrome victim. Robinson’s Stella is smart and compassionate but utterly under Stanley’s lustful spell. Ryan O’Kane didn’t really come into his own as Stanley until the second act, and then he was all seething and animalistic, a bully who’s the product of his environment, but a bully nonetheless.
At the interval you can’t help wishing it was the end of the play, when Blanche finds possible security in the arms of Mitch (played with due awkwardness by Jade Daniels). But Williams doesn’t let his cast or audience off the hook. Intensifying the on stage action, pianist Gene Alexander plays the waltz that haunts Blanche over and over, until we share her nightmare.
Wassenaar is a thrilling director, and his Almost A Bird Collective of young actors and designers are creating some of the most exciting work on our stages.
For more production details, click on the title at the top of this review. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.
Copyright © belongs to the reviewer
Brave and daring but a bit loud for a small theatre
Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 26th Nov 2007
The youthful Almost A Bird Theatre Collective’s fifth production is a very loud version of A Streetcar Named Desire for so small a theatre as Circa 2. It is, however, as daring as its last year’s production of The Glass Menagerie.
The Primary Colors was the title of an early draft of Streetcar and Williams described Stanley and his card players as coarse and direct and powerful as primary colours. Daniel Williams has designed a jumbled setting of piled high furniture, all of it fiery red, and with all the props red including Blanche’s birthday cake. Everything about Blanche is, of course, white, including her enormous trunk which contains all she owns.
Below the pile of furniture is a red piano at which Gene Alexander provides the music, songs and sound effects that permeate the play while at the same time playing five of the minor characters that populate Elysian Fields, a street in a poor quarter of New Orleans. While this is often effective, the bustle of life going on around Stanley and Stella’s apartment in the stifling heat of New Orleans is missing and so is the atmosphere of decay and the sound of the "blue piano" and lonely trumpet which, Williams says, explains the spirit of life there.
All my great characters, Williams once said, are larger than life, not realistic. A playwright, he continued, must catch life in moments of crisis, moments of electric confrontation. Willem Wassenaar’s cast throw themselves with enormous dedication and passion into their roles stressing the symbolic nature of the characters a little too much at times but in the big scenes they provide moments of electric confrontation.
Though Renee Sheridan’s Blanche is fey, flighty and desperate, it is hard to believe that this Southern belle would throw up in the bathroom from her nerves, and the "desire" between her and Ryan O’Kane’s powerful "gaudy seed-bearer" Stanley never quite takes off, they both project enough passion and energy to keep the drama pulsating in the big moments. In the quieter role of Stella, Jess Robinson is strong, down-to-earth and utterly convincing.
All in all, it’s a brave stab at a difficult play presented in a tiny theatre that is not suited to the emotional and atmospheric demands Streetcar makes.
Copyright © belongs to the reviewer
Mary Anne Bourke December 14th, 2007I also found this production of 'A Streetcar Named Desire' profoundly moving and far better, even a different beast, than early mixed reviews described. I hasten to agree with Lynn Freeman who raved about it. Perhaps it hit its stride after Opening night, as John allowed it might, but I cannot imagine a more thorough recreation of this masterpiece of cruelty, injustice and self-delusion than what I saw the night I went. All the acting is exciting, all-on stuff; Renee Sheridan's robust, party-girl Blanche has further to fall; the complete play has SO MUCH MORE to it than the film by which many of us think we know the work. Here it is: Tragedy. If Tennessee Williams has 'covert messages', whose 'subtle textures' are 'somehow hidden' by 'this young company brimming with energy', I'd love to know what they are, John.. but anyway, I'd bet the late playwright would be happy to toss 'em for the effect of this. Good news, busy people, is that it's on for another week.
Kate Blackhurst December 14th, 2007Thanks for this review. I am swayed by reviews of theatrical performances, and this one nearly put me off going to see the play. (Incidentally, is the 'lout' of the headline a Freudian slip?) [Ooops - fixed - ed] Comments such as 'hard to believe'; 'never quite takes off'; 'not suited to emotional and atmospheric demands'; 'bustle of life missing' had a negative tone. However, keen to make up my own mind, I went along this week with a group of friends and we were all enthralled, genuinely moved and spellbound by Blanche (Sheridan). Of course, I realise that everyone will have a different reaction to a play and several of our party had read your review. This sparked a healthy and lively debate, which I believe is the primary function of the reviewer, as well as drawing attention to the production. So thanks for that, and long may critical debate continue!
Passion and energy hides more subtle textures
Review by John Smythe 25th Nov 2007
My initial response to this full-on production – billed as “Hot Sexy Cruel Tender Savage Raw” – is to thrill at the vigour with which dust is being shaken from a well worn classic. Director Willem Wassenaar and his passionate young cast bring energy, commitment and a lively intelligence to every beat of the eleven-scene play. And yet …
In the small Circa Two space, Daniel Williams’ red-drenched set gives most of the floor to Stella and Stanley Kowalski’s two-room home, with a bath partly visible at the rear, while a jumbled pile of household effects plus a piano crams into one corner. Ingeniously this design manages to accommodate the indoor, outdoor and upstairs-neighbouring action on the corner of a New Orleans (French Quarter) street.
The Hubbels – Eunice (Sophie Roberts), who obsessively folds washing during the first half and cleans the (also red) auditorium seats during interval, and Steve (James Kupa) who escapes on occasion to Stanley’s for poker – otherwise huddle amid the domestic debris to play out their routinely dysfunctional relationship.
Tucked in below them at the piano, Gene Alexander eschews the blues intimated by the playwright in favour of a more honky-tonk sound. He also fills in all the bit parts with gusto and a little panache: Street Vendor, card-player Pablo Gonzales, Negro Woman, Young Collector, Doctor and the odd yowling cat. Again, an ingenious solution to limited resources.
Jess Robinson’s Stella presents – like Roberts’ Eunice – as equal to her husband’s aggression, largely giving as good as she gets, which makes her capitulation to his domination all the more effective when push comes to shove; when it comes to the not-quite-literal crunch. Ryan O’Kane’s Stanley is clearly attractive and charismatic when he needs to be, thus making his explosions of anger all the more powerful and confronting. The passion of their love in all its permutations is totally convincing.
Completing the New Orleans component and making up the fourth at poker, Harold (Mitch) Mitchell, ex-soldier with Stanley and now his work-mate in auto part sales, is well played by Jade Daniels to represent a man who is gentler, more sensitive, albeit through inexperience given his fidelity to an ailing mother.
If this corner of the world represents the new, industrial, post-WWII America, Stella’s ‘Southern belle’ sister Blanche – dressed in white and toting a huge white trunk filled with white faux-finery – is an emissary from the old, fading and already romanticised America which was and is as hypocritical in its value systems as this New Orleans is blunt and to the point. The allegorical implication of what she has come to is spelt out in Blanche’s opening line, as she reels at the down-market locale: “They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at – Elysian Fields!”
As with all Tennessee Williams’ plays that were sanitised when they were made into films, A Streetcar Named Desire has been better – more properly? – understood since the fact of Williams’ own homosexuality became more openly known. In the play Blanche’s tenuous grasp on reality and her slide into sexual promiscuity is rooted in a trauma involving her first love for – and marriage to – a handsome, poetic man who turned out to be bisexual and who, after she found him in bed with a man, shot himself.
This is the psychological basis for her attraction to Mitch, her loathing of Stanley, and her need protect herself through feminine wiles, while pretending she still has a job as a school teacher and she is sought after by persistent but chivalrous oil barons.
The usual approach is to play Blanche as a fragile, delicate flower whose self delusion and compulsion to delude others takes her inexorably away with the proverbial fairies. (“I’ll tell you what I want,” she declares in her own self-defence. “Magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don’t tell the truth. I tell what ought to be the truth. And if that’s sinful, then let me be damned for it!”)
Renée Sheridan challenges such preconceptions with a relatively brash, gutsy and often quite loud (too loud for Circa Two) Blanche DuBois. But while it is fair to say that more modulation could access some subtler dimensions of her psychological condition, and clearer articulation of her heavy Southern accent would give many lost lines their due, I cannot conclude it is an entirely invalid approach. Were is it written she may not ‘act out’ this way?
Overall each scene is played out by the ensemble with a clarity of purpose that compels our trust in the production, ensuring there is never a dull moment. It’s easy to identify with Stella’s conflicting loyalties, with Stanley’s frustration at not being able to get into the bathroom while she soaks in the tub, with Blanche’s desire to re-invent herself in response to Mitch’s manly desires. Even as more credible ‘intelligence’ filters through about her past, we are invited to hope the bourgeoning relationship between Blanch and Mitch will succeed.
But all this is working towards an ending which may well be one of the most challenging in the theatrical canon, and the way the dramatic set-ups and build-ups unfold can only fully be evaluated in light of the final outcome.
First it is important to note that Wassenaar and co have embellished the scene in which Mitch confronts Blanche about her past. Having written her off as “Not clean enough to bring in the house with my mother,” instead of spooking her out by just staring at her, they have him attempting to force himself on her, demeaning himself even more by trying to be the morally superior male aggressor while treating her as trash, unworthy of any respect. As she sends him scuttling with cries of “Fire!”, it registers well as a sad indictment of male values.
At the end of the next (penultimate) scene – while Stella is in hospital with their new born baby – Stanley is much more aggressive in his treatment of Blanche. When she tries to hit him with a bottle, he overpowers her, “picks up her inert figure and carries her to the bed” as the script indicates and, as the piano plays relentlessly on, we are left to imagine what follows.
Early in the final scene, Stella tells Eunice, “I couldn’t believe her story and go on living with Stanley.” This line is the only means by which we may realise that he has raped Blanche. It’s a big ask to impart that meaning in any production, let alone when – as with this staging – the distracting preparations for a new poker game work against our getting the point.
Eunice’s insistence on allowing the male-dominant status-quo to prevail, Stella’s torment at deciding – or agreeing – to consign Blanche to the care of a doctor (who will admit her to a mental institution), Stanley’s uncaring focus on the game and Mitch’s inability to effectively confront him are all well played. Yet somehow, on opening night anyway, I am neither hit by the appalling injustice of it nor compelled to face the playwright’s searing indictment of the prevailing social values, linking right back, as they do, to society’s inability to accept homosexuality which is where the whole sorry mess started.
It’s a huge challenge to bring this ending off, especially for such a young company brimming with an energy that somehow hides the more subtle textures of Tennessee Williams’ covert messages. They may well get there as the season progresses. Meanwhile the Almost A Bird Theatre Collective can be congratulated for not resting on the laurels of their previous successes: Angels in America, Antigone, The Glass Menagerie and Delicates. They remain a vital new player in Wellington’s vibrant theatre scene.
Copyright © belongs to the reviewer