REVIEW: A must-see immersive production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” in Brooklyn


Tennessee Williams’s 1947 Southern Gothic masterpiece “A Streetcar Named Desire” has captivated audiences since its debut, earning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, a critically-acclaimed iconic 1951 film adaption, and eight Broadway revivals—most recently a multi-racial production in 2012.

A new immersive Off-Off-Broadway production in Brooklyn by director Kevin Hourigan proves the enduring genius of Williams’s lyrical text while offering a ringside seat on the domestic squabbles of the Kowalski household that is unlike any you have ever experienced before.  

Performed for an audience of around 50 seated in single rows on opposite sides of a runway platform spanning the length of Mister Rogers—an art, music, and event venue in a storefront in Crown Heights—this uncensored and voyeuristic take on a classic American play packs as much heat and drips with as much sweat as a New Orleans summer, and makes a bit of history in the process.

Russell Peck is the first genderqueer actor to play fading Southern Belle Blanche Du Bois in the United States.  Tall and lanky, sporting a cheap blonde wig and a face caked with too much makeup, this Blanche is clearly out of place in the combustible, two-room railroad-style apartment shared by her pregnant sister, Stella (Isabel Ellison), and her brother-in-law, the chiseled and animalistic “Polack” Stanley Kowalski (Max Carpenter).

Far from being a novelty, the casting of Mx. Russell gives new texture to an already vibrant play that builds toward a shattering final scene.  But the presence of a genderqueer actor on stage is but one of several illuminating aspects of Mr. Hourigan’s outstanding production, first devised at NYU.

In close quarters, experiencing the play in high relief, there is no room for a single lie, and the assembled ensemble delivers complex performances of raw truth, from Ms. Ellison’s stunning portrait of Stella and her abusive relationship with Stanley, to the unexpected power of Yvonna Pearson’s cameo work as upstairs neighbor Eunice Hubbell.

Two explicit scenes definitely require the need for Intimacy Coordinator Tina Horn, but ground the reality of the piece and up the ante in disturbing but satisfying ways. 

Choul Lee’s set design lifts the Kowalski apartment about a foot off the ground, framing the space in steel studs, and dressing the room with period and pocketbook perfection that evokes the low-rent lifestyle of Stella and Stanley, creating an endless number of Hopperesque sight lines for the audience in the process.

Combined with the minimalist, and mostly functional (think table lamps and naked bulb pendants), lighting design of Matthew Webb, the selection of your seat makes for the thrill of peeking in on Stanley and his pokermates while simultaneously watching Blanche and Stella colloquy in the dim light of the bedroom.  The use of only candles during one essential scene between Blanche and her gentleman caller Mitch (David J. Cork) is highly effective. 

This smart and multi-faceted production of “Streetcar” offers more than its appropriately headline-worthy central casting decision, making a compelling case both for the transmutability of Williams’ play, the immediacy of immersive theatre, and the importance of getting out of Manhattan and the predictable halls of more established theatre companies to experience a classic upfront, and anew. 

Without hesitation, I suspect this “Streetcar” will long reign as among the most visceral and memorable productions of a Tennessee Williams play that I have ever been privileged to witness.  It is, in short: a must-see.

Bottom Line: A new, immersive Off-Off-Broadway production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” makes history as the first to feature a genderqueer actor as Blanche DuBois, but that’s only one reason to see this uncensored and visceral take on an American classic, performed mere feet from the audience and loaded with complex and raw performances.  A must-see.

A Streetcar Named Desire
Mister Rogers
231 Rogers Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11225

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, 30 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: May 7, 2019
Final Performance: May 25, 2019

Isabel Ellison