REVIEW: A laser-hot production of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE that features the first genderqueer actor playing Blanche DuBois
Bold doesn’t sufficiently describe the way, way, Off-Off-Broadway production of Tennessee William’s A STREET CAR NAMED DESIRE at Mister Rogers in Corona Heights, Brooklyn.
From actors and creative team who bonded back at NYU drama school comes a laser-hot production that features the first genderqueer actor playing Blanche DuBois, Tennessee William’s famous female tragic figure. But the production transcends the casting milestone (approved by Williams’ literary estate) and renders a riveting production that is amazingly both fresh in drama and raw in staging.
Russell Peck’s Blanche, thinner and in high heels taller than a Vuitton runway model, looming heads above the rest of the cast (even Stanley), initially seems out of place, with a presence and voice that is over-stylized. But isn’t that the point? Blanche IS out-of-place and over-stylized. They (Mx Peck) is joined by a multi-racial, cis cast, that is excellent, especially Isabelle Ellison (with impressive London and Chicago credits) whose Stella is perhaps the best I’ve ever seen. With her doe eyes, slouched hips, cherubic derriere and rats-nest hair, Ms. Ellison’s Stella slinks about in a sex hangover; she can never get enough from her sex-machine Stanley. The hunky Max Carpenter, with pecs and glutes that won’t quit and pouty bad-boy face, lets loose a no-holds-barred Stanley, sexually and violently. (I wonder what Brando would do if he wasn’t 1950s constrained.) The supporting cast is excellent, too, especially David J. Cork as Mitch, Blanche’s suitor. Wether the role was blind cast or deliberately cast with a person-of-color, this Mitch is Black, fittingly adding social context to and heightening the play's inherent tension. Mr. Cork perfectly mixes empathy and repulsion for Blanche in his critical scene.
The setting, actual and staged, combine perfectly. The performance space is in the hollowed out, high-ceiling rear of an old-storefront. The stage is a slightly elevated alley platform (a railroad flat tenement with front stoop at one end and bathtub at the other) with a single row of seats both sides (seating capacity 50). The squalid set is richly detailed in Salvation Army used furniture, household stuff and bottles of booze. Matthew Webb’s lighting design, whether out of budgetary necessity or not, is inspired. Most action appears in shadows or poorly lit; think naked light bulb, which figures in Williams’ story when Blanche adorns it with a paper lantern creating “an enchantment”.
Director Kevin Hourigan, working with a book we know almost too well, doesn’t let it cool down. He allows some relief from the heat in scene shifts that are segued with America torch song standards, which in this context carry an irony of innocence. The fight scenes ignite the stage; kudos to fight coordinator Jonathan Higginbottom for their realism. This STREETCAR also has - appropriately - an intimacy coordinator, Tina Horn. The love scene between Stanley and Stella is not exactly full frontal but the missionary-position action is pretty realistic. Stanley’s rape of Blanche is about as graphic as anything I’ve seen staged; Blanche face down, pinned to the kitchen table and violated from the rear. Drunken Stanley staggers collapsing on the bed, heaving breath. Blanche silently saunters across the stage, past Stanley, saliva dripping from her nose and face, seeking refuge in her tub. That pain doesn’t wash away.
Most inspired is what Mr. Hourigan and Mx. Peck do with the devastating last scene. I won’t reveal it here but it’s something that could NOT have been done with Ms’s Leigh, Lang, Richardson, Blanchett (my favorite), Anderson or Ann Margaret (on TV, remember?) or any Blanche before. It’s never been clearer that Blanche has been stripped of any defense, de-personalized - neutered, if you will. And when gendergender Mx. Peck intones, even in a voice that registers well below all Blanches that have come before, “Whoever you are…..I have always depended on the kindness of strangers” all the grand pathos that makes this one of the great American plays gets embodied on a tiny stage in a tiny Brooklyn storefront. Whoever you are, indeed.