REVIEW: Immersive Revival of "A Streetcar Named Desire" Innovates with Genderqueer Blanche
Review: Immersive Revival of "A Streetcar Named Desire" Innovates with Genderqueer Blanche
Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire needs little introduction. The 1947 play won a Pulitzer Prize, the 1951 film adaptation, with some of the play’s sharpest edges sanded off, received critical acclaim, and, of course, a Simpsons parody bestowed upon it one of our society’s more widely recognized imprimaturs of cultural importance. It continues to be widely read, taught, and produced; and a new production under the direction by Kevin Hourigan represents a new chapter in the play’s storied history. For the first time, a U.S. production of Streetcar has been licensed to allow a genderqueer/trans actor to play tragically distressed Southern belle Blanche DuBois, a project which had its genesis with performer Russell Peck a decade ago and which brings fresh dimensions to this mainstay of American theater.
For those unfamiliar with the play, Blanche (Russell Peck), having finally lost the family’s long-troubled family seat in Mississippi, arrives at the two-room New Orleans apartment shared by her sister Stella (Isabel Ellison) and Stella’s husband, Stanley Kowalski (Max Carpenter). As Blanche’s visit is quickly revealed to be an indefinite stay, Stanley’s unadorned interests in bowling, poker, drinking, sex, and money make a less than ideal fit with Blanche’s affectations of beauty, good manners, and cultivation, although these distinctions arguably become blurrier in places as the play goes on. Blanche finds a more kindred spirit in Stanley’s friend Harold “Mitch” Mitchell (David J. Cork), whose cigarette case is inscribed with lines of poetry that she admires, and he emerges as a potential beau. Ultimately, Stanley’s determination to challenge Blanche’s version of herself and her life—along with the inverted parallel of Stella’s acceptance, in the name of passion, of Stanley’s version of himself, domestic violence included—renders an explosive reckoning inevitable, but still horrifying.
Early on, the proper, put-together Blanche (Williams’s stage directions in the opening scene describe her as a “delicate beauty” in white who “suggests a moth”) conspicuously contrasts the sensually disheveled Stella—as well as the muscular, sleeveless, often sweaty Stanley—down to the way that the sisters sit differently at the table together, one straight-backed, one with legs akimbo. Similar contrasts occur between the simultaneous courting between Mitch and Blanche outside the residence and the carnality between Stella and Stanley inside. (The stage, a long, raised rectangular platform with audience seating along the walls around it, is excellently suited for this type of multiply focused action, as it is for creating a sense of somewhat claustrophobic intimacy with the Kowalski household.) As the play progresses, though, Blanche appears is a state of partial undress as much as or more than Stanley, reflecting the thematic dynamics of concealment and exposure and clarifying that the two are not as different as either would wish. The play also, and relatedly, demonstrates the toxicity of traditional constructs of gender and sexuality, with, for example, the Kowalskis’ landlord and upstairs neighbor Eunice (Yvonna Pearson) forgiving her husband, Steve (Julian Alexander) his infidelities and their crashing fights just as Stella forgives Stanley his assault of and unrelenting control over her; the echo of Blanche hiding her age (age and beauty being central to dominant constructions of femininity) in the concealment by her late husband, consistently referred to as a boy rather than a “man,” of his sexuality; and in Blanche’s own sexual agency serving as a point of attack and justification for ostracism. That Blanche is embodied by a genderqueer actor also allows resonances with and application to contemporary concerns around gender construction, nonconformity, and fluidity. For instance, as Peck pointed out in a January 2019 interview with the Norwegian daily newspaper Dagsavisen, “Moments in the play, like when Mitch demands to see ‘the real’ Blanche under bright light, take on a different meaning when Blanche is not a cisgender woman, and a Trans person.” The production also cannily introduces some staging elements without changing the original text (in the manner of many modern productions of Shakespeare) that ultimately bring this subtext effectively and affectingly into the foreground.
This Streetcar is uncompromising in its engagement with bodies, their sexuality, their violence, and the disturbing intersections thereof, all of which is bolstered by impressive performances from the entire cast (and a little live piano). Carpenter magnetically inhabits Stanley with a mix of brute force, charisma, and petty cunning from the moment that he first bellows “Stella.” Peck creates a nuanced Blanche, generating laughs with dry sardonicism, giving the audience glimpses of Blanche’s trauma, lending a tender authenticity to their scenes of courtship with Cork’s similarly fully-realized Mitch, and showing the steely strength under the petals of the belle when squaring off against Carpenter’s Stanley. Ellison’s Stella possesses a convincingly overwhelming chemistry with Carpenter’s Stanley, a stubborn pride in her life and choices, and a palpable sense of the stress and finally anguish of trying to mediate between sister and husband.
Memorably acted and astutely staged, this pioneering production of Streetcar succeeds in making a classic piece of theater speak in new ways.
-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards