by: Carol Rocamora
Sometimes a production comes along that shakes up a classic, and you feel that you’re seeing it for the very first time. Such is the case of Benedict Andrew’s stunning Streetcar Named Desire, now playing at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn.
Unlike directors who willfully deconstruct classical texts, Andrews shows appropriate reverence for Tennessee Williams’s immortal words by leaving them intact. Instead, he’s updated the action from 1947 to now, and transposed the scene from the colorful French Quarter in New Orleans to an antiseptic, Ikea-furnished apartment set in a void that rotates on a turntable for the play’s entire 3 ¼ hour duration. It’s a risk, but it has an enormous payoff. The audience sits on all four sides, and you feel as if you’re peering, uninvited, into a dangerous domestic scene about to explode in violence, taking you along with it.
We’re all familiar with Streetcar’s searing story of Blanche DuBois, the desperate, aging Southern belle fleeing from a tarnished past. She seeks refuge in her sister Stella’s seedy flat, clashes with her volatile brother-in-law Stanley, and slowly descends into madness. The play’s legendary 1947 premiere was one of the pinnacles in American theatre, featuring Elia Kazan as director, Jessica Tandy as Blanche, Kim Hunter as Stella, Karl Malden as Mitch, and a young actor named Marlon Brando as Stanley. It made his career, and branded the role as Brando’s for all time. To this day, we can hear his primitive cry “Stell-ah” ringing in our ears.
The strength of Andrews’s production lies in its rawness and primal energy. By stripping away the colorful atmosphere of New Orleans and paring the play down to the bone, Andrews focuses fiercely on the characters and their intense relationships. Paramount is the titanic clash between Blanche and Stanley, one that ignites from the moment they meet and builds over three hours to an ultimate, devastating conflagration. As played with unbearable intensity by Gillian Anderson, this Blanche is a ferocious, feral creature clinging desperately to her delusions while spinning out of control. She’s a fire-eater, a self-devouring predator as well as a pathetic victim, a tangle of contradictions.
From the moment Blanche lays eyes on Stanley, played with animal magnetism by Ben Foster, she taunts him with her hungry sexuality. The electrifying physical energy between them is almost unbearable for those in the audience who guess what a terrible road they’re traveling together.
Similarly, the relationship between Stanley and his pregnant wife Stella (played by Vanessa Kirby) has its own overpowering intensity. They’re locked together in a cycle of violence, tenderness and sexual heat. Stella is usually played as the retiring, soft-spoken, deferential younger sister. In contrast, Kirby’s Stella is steady, strong, and passionate. Her compassion for the brutish Stanley is unexpectedly touching, and their bond is indestructible. This is, after all, a play about desire that’s as acute as ravenous hunger.
Some of Andrews’s choices are jarring – like the pounding rock music between scenes, and the streetcar’s deafening roar. At those times, I missed the steamy New Orleans atmosphere evoked so effectively in other productions. However, Andrews finds his own way to represent the French Quarter and its exotic charms. Steve and Eunice (the Kowalski’s neighbors) fight, smoke and make love on an adjoining fire escape, while a lone prostitute circles the rotating stage like one of Macbeth’s witches gone astray. These strange moments add a surreal touch to the production – as does the penultimate scene of violence, when Stanley attacks Blanche and throws her down on the bed. Instead of simulating the sex act, however, he simply lifts her pink tulle gown over her head as she lies there, like a corpse. It’s an eerie moment on this wild streetcar ride – one that I’ll never forget.
“I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers”, says Blanche, delivering one of the most famous lines every written for the stage. As Magda Willi’s set twirls around for the final time, Blanche makes her final, devastating exit like a descent into hell. Speaking of this Streetcar, you can depend on director Benedict Andrews to show you Williams’s masterpiece anew.
Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Benedict Andrews, at St. Ann’s Warehouse, Water Street, Brooklyn, now through June 4, www.stannswarehouse.org
Photo: Teddy Wolff