Photos by Katrina Robinson
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By Lisa Purchase Kelly
"I don't want realism! I want MAGIC!" Blanche DuBois does not get her desire, but the audience definitely does. What unfolded in SVSU's A Streetcar Named Desire was realism, was magic, was theater at its finest. Let me get straight to the point here: Go see it. Go see it. Go see it. Director David Rzeszutek and the rest of the Theatre Department at SVSU have wrestled with a mighty beast here, and they have emerged victorious. This was a densely layered production; every word, every gesture, tableau, sound, shadow, fight, and flirtation was meaningful, nothing was wasted, and I feel like I couldn't possibly grasp it all in one viewing … I am tempted to see it again just to catch all the nuances that might have escaped me the first time around.
First, the set. Jerry Dennis' New Orleans is subtly seedy, steamy, laid-back but menacing. Neon signs and metal fire escapes suggest the streetscape, while the dingy walls and slum furnishings clearly establish the Kowalski apartment. Scene transitions are pure theater magic … the apartment fades away to streets in literally the blink of an eye, and the background action between the scenes becomes a silent play within the play, subtly enhancing the main action. The lighting superbly highlighted the emotional content of the story and framed each actor's performance according to the desired scope; narrowing the focus on each character's inner demons or transporting them out of their current surroundings, or widening the viewfinder to include the context of the immediate environment and fellow players. Simply but beautifully done, the set and the seamless transitions allowed this complex story to flow smoothly from beginning to end.
Next, the performances. Blanche DuBois is the original desperate housewife, dishing out backhanded compliments and petty criticisms, flaunting her fading beauty, trolling for attention, keeping her demons at bay with bottles of booze, and hiding behind fantasies of chivalry, fame, and fortune. Danielle Schoeny does an amazing job of walking the tightrope between passive-aggressive perfection and what I might label defensive delusionalism, sliding inexorably toward the latter over the course of the show. The cracked façade of her forced cheerfulness and extravagant gestures entice the audience while letting the desperation underneath seep through. Her flirtatious scene with David Ryan (who is quietly beautiful as the kind and uncomplicated Mitch) is one of the outstanding moments of the play. Like Mitch, I was charmed by Blanche's sweetness, and for a moment almost believed that, damaged though she was, she might return his honest affection and have a chance at a life in the real world. "Half a woman's charm is illusion" says Blanche (excusing her habit of staying in the shadows), and Ms. Schoeny handles this character's illusions well.
Rusty Myers manfully steps into his legendary role and does it justice. His "STELLLLAAAA" met and exceeded expectations. That much-anticipated line could easily become a parody of itself if not handled properly, but Rusty brought enough to this character throughout the show that, when the classic moment arrived, it was entirely his—no specter of Brando hovered in the air as we watched the iconic character writhe in desperation. Stanley Kowalski induces a kind of vertigo for the audience; like the women in his life we are attracted and repelled by him, we both admire and fear his powerful presence. While Blanche hides from truth, he bludgeons people with it and he refuses to look beyond the solid surface of the cold hard facts to find meaning in anything. Mr. Myers has many outstanding moments in the show, some designed by the excellent script and others conveyed solely by his non-verbal cues, the outcome of a fine actor fully inhabiting his character's body. One of the best of these is the picture created by Schoeny and Myers late in the play; he stands there in the kitchen brutishly gnawing on a pretzel and swilling a beer, solid and menacing while she, in her finest gown and boa, soliloquizes her fantasies of entitlement and chivalry. It is a picture of beauty and the beast in the real world; he is no prince and they cannot possibly rescue each other.
But the very finest moments, in my opinion, belong to Amanda Mueller's Stella. Hers is perhaps the more difficult character, being neither one thing nor the other, trying always to affect a balance, a truce between the opposing elements in her life. She cannot go too far in any direction or the whole thing could tip over. Stella can't rescue anyone either, least of all herself. She defends her sister to her husband, she defends her husband to her sister, and has little left over for herself. Ms. Mueller's nuanced portrayal keeps Stella from fading into the background as just a victim in this story and instead presents her as a person with a measure of dignity and integrity amid the squalor of her circumstance. During one argument with Stanley she ran through a gamut of emotions and finally, suddenly, stood up from the kitchen table, and somehow this tiny wisp of a woman rose to the presence and intensity of the bellowing bestial Stanley. It was shocking and powerful without being over the top; perfectly played, great and engaging theater. Stella also had the final word of the play, which had the completely unexpected effect of making me cry. An outstanding actress in an outstanding role.
Do I have any complaints? Yep. The sound cues were slightly jarring and the rape scene was a little too ambiguous (if I hadn't known ahead of time that there was a rape in the script, I might not have recognized it as such) … minor issues. Do I have any more compliments? You bet. The costumes were perfect, the ensemble was solid in their performances, their accents were for the most part steady and agreeable. And the pacing was very good; in a play that ran nearly two-and-a-half hours I didn't feel it dragging at all. My compliments to the director.
While I have had fun lately at musical theater and comedies, I have not had the pleasure of attending a serious drama in a very long time. It seems that good productions of weighty drama are few and far between, and I can see why—it is far more difficult, I think, to portray these complex characters, and you need talented trained experienced actors to convey the subtleties, to connect with the audience, to do the script justice. Bearing that in mind, take this opportunity while it lasts. This is an excellent script supported by an excellent cast, excellent set, and obviously an excellent director. You would do well to catch it while you can.
A Streetcar Named Desire sports a cast of twelve and plays on the main stage at Saginaw Valley State University's Malcolm Field Theatre for Performing Arts. It runs Thursday, November 18 through Sunday, November 21, with performances at 7:30pm Thursday through Saturday, and a 3:00 performance on Sunday. Admission is $10.00 ($7.00 for Seniors and Students). For more information or to order tickets, please contact the Box Office at 989-964-4261. There will be a "talk-back" after the November 21 3:00pm Sunday performance. After the show the cast and director will be joined by a moderator on stage for a panel discussion of the show. They will be taking questions from the audience about the script, their individual performances, and this production in general. Anyone who comes to the Sunday performance is welcome to stay afterward and participate in the discussion.
p.s. Two further comments. First, I applaud the affordable ticket price. While the cost of a show at the community theaters has crept up to nearly twenty dollars (more for some musicals), this is a very manageable price and should further encourage people to take advantage of this opportunity to see some great theater.
Secondly, while they are not necessarily the audience for whom this show is intended, my husband and I took my two teenagers to this show. I would rate this production PG-13 for Violence and Sexual Situations, and if you watch PG-13 movies with your kids, they might be a reasonable audience for this show. We had some great conversation in the car on the way home, about the plight of the characters and about this particular staging and production. My fourteen-year-old son said he was so worked up about all the tension on stage in the first act that he wasn't sure if he could sit through the other two acts. He was on the edge of his seat to the point where he almost couldn't stay in it. I think that is as ringing an endorsement as any.
© Lisa Purchase Kelly, 2010