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vancouverplays review


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—Leaky Heaven Circus’s A Streetcar Named Desire

by Tennessee Williams
Leaky Heaven Circus
May 19-22, 2010, 9pm
Elysian Fields, 820 Woodland Drive

A Heavenly Streetcar

Leaky Heaven Circus’s A Streetcar Named Desire is marvelous.  Inventively staged, beautifully paced, and expertly acted, it taps much of the gritty richness of Tennessee Williams’s 1947 script.  But it also manages to rework the play, breaking it out of the fixed-stage set and redistributing it around a little two-storey house in East Vancouver.  The result is a light-footed, contemporary Streetcar.

As Williams wrote it, Streetcar is about the collapse of the gracious (and racist) old American South and its re-invention as a gutsier, manlier, and more racially heterogeneous society.  Williams spoke with loathing about “the seductions of an effete way of life” just before the play first opened.  But it is also about passionate and conflicted relationships.  For me, Streetcar’s larger social symbolism always fades into the background as these relationships intensify.  The symbolism barely registers when played out just off Woodland Drive—a site that both is and is not New Orleans in Leaky Heaven’s hands—although there are wonderful atmospheric symmetries between the two settings.  Blanche Dubois was raised on a now-bankrupt plantation estate.  She arrives, destitute and troubled, at a run-down home where her sister Stella now lives.  Stella has married a working class Polish American, Stanley Kowalski, who is rough-mannered and as manly as can be.  He and Blanche clash, even as they fascinate each other.  They fight for Stella and for the power to define what is basic and valuable about human relations.

Under Steven Hill’s direction, the actors shift their characters slightly out of iconic boxes.  Lois Anderson’s Blanche is tougher, less breathless, than famous precedents, but she shows the necessary strain.  Her face projects a fitting combination of cheek and exhaustion.  As Stanley, Billy Marchenski is restrained and merry-eyed but believably powerful.  When Stanley hit his pregnant wife, someone near me gasped, Oh no…  Sasa Brown is a sweet, practical Stella.  Early on she assumes some of Blanche’s abandoned fragility, hustling off to buy corner-store cokes with a worried glance at the audience.  But she exerts strength when necessary, brawling with Stanley and pushing the crowding spectators aside.  Sean Marshall Jr. is charming as a youthful Mitch.  Blanche’s character shift changes things, so that the play is no longer so focused on the dying gasps of her fragile beauty.  When the action spills out of the house into the audience’s midst, the cast has to work hard to shift the delighted crowd’s mood as the play turns from saucy to serious.  But the dynamics work. 

Hill, dramaturg Michele Valiquette, and the team of designers summon the extraordinary realism of site-specific theatre.  Standing on dumpsters and flowerbeds to peer in windows, the audience is made part of the play, cast as nosy neighbours.  When Blanche becomes delusional, we stand in for her imagined admirers, robustly embodying her fantasies.  But Valiquette and Hill also deliberately break the realist perceptual frame.  Clever staging allows the actors to appear in two scenes at once.  Later, Anderson and Marshall Jr. pull off a serious conversation while lip-synching as their own voices play, sped up, through a portable stereo.  They manage to be both exaggerated and sincere.  The final scene of the play is especially bold and strange, thwarting the spectators’ voyeurism by disembodying the performance just at the climactic moment when Stanley attacks Blanche.  The actors’ speaking faces appear digitally projected onto the side of the house, while the cast voices their lines standing in the dark amid the crowd.  Perhaps partly because the audience so obediently accepted this finale I found it deeply moving:  a wonderful balance between reverence for the original play and playful experiment.

Sarah Banting