A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE at the Boston Court Performing Arts Center
Three weeks ago in New Orleans, we spent an amazing afternoon visiting Kenneth Holditch, one of our times’ most respected Tennessee Williams scholars, a cherished old friend who, at 84, is recuperating from major health issues in his museum-like home on Frenchman Street. When I mentioned how much I was looking forward to Michael Michetti’s reinvention of A Streetcar Named Desire, which just opened last Saturday at the unstoppably courageous Boston Court, Dr. Ken made a face that looked as though he was participating in the Lemon Challenge.
“I don’t appreciate anyone updating classics,” he grumbled—and in many ways, I agree with him. I could do without Shakespeare set in the Old West and other such flights of fancy usually implemented more as a gimmick than to make a statement, but when someone successfully adapts the timeless humanity of Chekhov to show how little has changed for our troubled species in the last 100 years or resets Romeo and Juliet as a turfwar between the Jets and Sharks in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, I am onboard bigtime.
More than that, long before I played the father of Tessa Thompson in Charles Mee’s overlooked treasure Summertime at this same theatre, also directed by the Boston Court’s co-artistic director Michetti during their first year of operation, I have been a great supporter of colorblind casting. It usually takes about two minutes for me to forget what race the performers are—especially when you have actors and a visionary director leading them to new heights as brilliant as the team assembled here.
This electrifying new Streetcar, now set in contemporary N’awlins and featuring African-American actors as Stanley and Stella, a Caucasian Blanche, a Nicaraguan Mitch, and even a transgendered Eunice, is a bold and risky undertaking, one that surely gave Michetti a few grey hairs along the way. Boy, has the latest of many precarious artistic decisions implemented by one of our town’s most innovative directors ever paid off. Michetti’s Streetcar is simply remarkable, the most memorable and courageous reinvention of a great classic I can remember experiencing in my looooong life as a theatre whore and major Williams freak.
More than just the rarified casting choices, however, Tenn’s most famous masterwork, here performed without altering one single word of the original script, works astonishing well. It still glorifies the indelible timelessness of the best play of the 20th century as it perfectly honors Williams’ still hauntingly poetic dialogue, while simultaneously addressing his recurrent themes of class entitlement and identity that today create as big a wedge between people as it did way back when Streetcar was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1948.
On Efren Delgadillo Jr’s all but transparent two-leveled, open-framed steel gridwork set, with audience hovering like theatrical voyeurs on three sides of the action, the production begins with sound designer Sam Sewell seated in front of a portable sound board in one corner of the stage. There in our privileged view she conjures the Vieux Carre’s ever-present sirens and street noise, the plaintive whine of foghorns breaking through the night air from the adjacent mighty Mississippi, and the eerie sound of St. Louis Cathedral’s richly resonant bells (which Blanche notes as the only “clean thing in the Quarter”), the same bells that last month lulled my boyfriend and me to sleep nightly from our garret at the Place d’Armes facing the Cathedral’s spires looming above the Presbytere.
Added to this auditory magic, Sewell then adds in an eclectic mix of musical choices that would make any aficionado of the Big Easy’s rich heritage proud. As she rocks out to her own sound design, she is joined by Paul Outlaw, addressing the audience as an androgynous Jackson Square street chanteuse with a showstopping rendition of my late-great friend Wardell (The Creole Beethoven) Quezergue’s “Mr. Big Stuff,” with brand new lyrics Outlaw himself has written which turns another great classic into a contemporary rap song. Wardell, I know, would be more than thrilled; I can just hear him intone “Whhhaaaat?” in his sorely-missed signature style.
Outlaw only warms things up for what is about to unfold. It’s a brave new world as Stella (Maya Lynne Robinson) shows Blanche (Jaimi Paige) the photo of her uniformed husband on her cellphone and the couple’s meager Ikea-reject furnishings look as though purchased at a post-Katrina garage sale in the Ninth Ward. Why, even Blanche's doomed radio is tuned into WWOZ.
With two translucent plastic shower curtains separating the Elysian Field flat’s two rooms to make the living conditions between the Kowalskis and Sister Blanche even more of a powerkeg than ever, as well as an open view of Eunice and Steve (Mariana Marroquin and Joma Saenz) dirty dancing in their flat right above their heads, the tenuous world of Streetcar emerges with surprising new clarity.
As their unwelcomed guest Blanche starts melodiously ordering her little sister on endless errands, asking her to go out the drugstore to fetch her a lemon coke or calls out for her to bring her a fresh towel as she commanders the bathroom and languishes in her hot tub for hours, the relationship between the uber-white alpha and her long-accommodating black sibling offers a brand new twist. “I love waiting on you, Blanche,” Stella tells her at one point, here played with more than a passing hint of irony. “It makes it feel more like home.”
And fairly late in the journey, when Stanley (Desean Kevin Terry, winner last year of my Best Actor TicketHolder Award for his unforgettable performance in Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs) gets inches from his sister-in-law’s face right before the infamous rape scene to spit out to her he’s not a Polock and that people from Poland are Poles, it doesn’t take a big flight of the imagination to know just what the guy is saying. The word coming out of his mouth might be Polock, but the intention is without a doubt inferring the dreaded “N-word.”
What Terry does is a revelation. Without the usual pit-scratching imitation of Marlon Brando, Terry finds a kinder, smarter, gentler Stanley, which makes the moments when he blows his top even scarier than ever before. And as Blanche, Paige is also transcendent, accompanying her sparring partner under Michetti’s leadership to avoid the many traps into which most actors fall directly when playing these characters.
At the beginning of the evening, Paige’s Blanche is just as syrupy-sweet and dripping with Southern lady-charm every actress before her adopts, but by the time she tells Mitch (the pitch-perfect Luis Kelly-Duarte) about the death of her first love or later as her thin veneer of civilized behavior begins to strip away and her eccentricities devolve into insanity, Paige goes deeper, becoming more intense and quieter than anyone who has come before her in the familiar role.
Robinson’s performance, however, is ultimately the most changed and artistically inspiring. She infuses her often terminally mousy and broken Stella with a knockout new spirit, refusing to fade away and be the dutiful little wifey who puts up with a monster just because she feels she must. Stella’s innuendos about Stanley’s sexual prowess and hints that maybe she’s rather turned on by his overtly masculine brutishness are explored more directly and successfully than ever before and—again without changing a word of dialogue—Robinson’s final moments as Stella confronts her husband, their newborn in her arms, leaves us with an all new idea of what might have happened if Williams had ever been compelled to write a sequel.
There’s not much I would change about this production, save one glaring omission. Somehow for me, this Streetcar needs the inclusion of a sense of New Orleans’ stifling heat to add to the milieu. Even when the white plastic desk fan is turned on and off, it doesn’t seem to lessen the claustrophobia of the Kowalskis’ flat or change the disposition of its inhabitants. Even Michael Michetti’s unearthly reworking of the story needs the city’s inherent dampness, a chance to let these trapped people wipe away sweat, fan themselves for relief, and occasionally droop from the oppressive temperature that’s part of life along the banks of the muddy Mississip.
Aside from that, this production, for lovers of Williams, can absolutely not be missed. Since Tenn was never satisfied with his work and never during his lifetime stopped rewriting even his most well-known plays, I’m sure if he were still with us today, he'd be hoisting a Sazerac or three in honor of this jarringly fresh and captivating new take on A Streetcar Named Desire—and toasting Michael Michetti’s singular perception of the universal truths and fragile nature of huminty that Tenn was attempting to communicate to audiences 71 years ago.
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