Tuesday, December 01, 2009

A Streetcar Named Desire

I found the much-lauded production of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire starring Cate Blanchett and directed by Liv Ullman to be a major disappointment. Blanchett's Blanche is full of sound and fury, signifying little. Ullman's heavy-handed direction pairs skin-deep overwrought performances with arbitrary images, as when Blanche moves from the floor to the bed for no reason other than to allow the light from a passing train to illuminate her alabaster skin and long neck, then returns to the floor for no reason at all. Joel Edgerton as Stanley has a nice chest, but he looks like Conan O'Brien, which is fine for a talkshow host but not for a Stanley. His voice is wrong for the part, his performance is one note, and his eyes fail to participate in his acting. The set is too dingy, ugly, and bare; Stanley and Stella aren't rich, and they don't care much about appearances, but they'd own a bit of furniture. The all-important curtain between the two rooms isn't large enough, leading to awkward staging. Many moments are played for laughs that shouldn't be played for laughs. Even the poster (see above) seems wrong. [spoilers in the next paragraph]

Because this Streetcar is overdirected and overacted from the beginning, there is no place to go for the final scenes except way way too far. By Blanche and Stanley's big showdown, Blanche is so drunk and damaged that the rape loses any sense of revenge, reclaiming turf, and showing who's boss and is just plain icky. It also loses its sense of being the tipping point, the place from which Blanche cannot return--in this version, Blanche has passed that point long ago. And when the people from the asylum come to take Blanche away, she leaves the house in her slip, without shoes. I do not believe that Blanche would do that, nor do I believe that Stella would let her. At the very end, Blanche walks away from the "kind stranger" and wanders across the stage until she reaches her mark for another moment of illumination of her alabaster skin and long neck. And then the show is over, eliminating the resumption of the poker game with its sense of life cold-heartedly returning to normal.

A few months ago, I saw an excellent production of Streetcar at the Barrington Stage Company (review here). In that production, every acting and directing decision was made in service of the play. This production is more like a riff on Streetcar, one that does not do it justice.

For the record, the second the show ended, the audience, after guffawing raucously throughout, leapt to their feet and cheered.

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