A Streetcar Named Desire by Ten Thousand Things Theater

Austene Van in A Streetcar Named Desire.  Photo provided by Ten Thousand Things Theater.

Austene Van in A Streetcar Named Desire. Photo  by Peter Vitale.

“I don’t want realism,” Blanche DuBois cries in A Streetcar Named Desire (Ten Thousand Things Theater, various venues, through May 26), “I want magic!”

The great Tennessee Williams serves up juicy dollops of both in this play.  Streetcar celebrates eroticism, passion, marriage, the transformative power of raw storytelling.  And heat: has New Orleans in the summertime ever been so vividly evoked?  Alcohol: “Maybe I’ll have just one more,” Blanche says, having worked her way through most of a bottle.  “Two is my limit.”

And magic.  From the moment visiting sister Blanche sets foot in Stanley and Stella’s flat, she spins twining tendrils of fantasy.  At first her make-believe seems harmless, an attempt to glamorize the sweaty claustrophobia of the Kowalski apartment, the reeking neighborhood.  But soon her fantasies are edged with desperation, loneliness, poison, insanity, death and herein lies the true achievement of Streetcar: Blanche pulls us in and at the same time frightens the bejabbers out of us.  A thrilling play.

Ten Thousand Things, as you likely know, performs in neighborhood centers, prisons, as well as in rehearsal halls (I saw Streetcar at Wayside House, a chemical dependency treatment center).  Performing spaces are tiny and the plays are done without lights, with minimal sets.  The effect is exhilaratingly cinematic; the audience’s camera is often just a few feet away from the action.  I don’t wish to seem coarse, but with TTT you feel like you can reach out and touch, feel, even smell the characters.  It’s a grand effect.

A Streetcar Named Desire works beautifully in this way.  As Blanche DuBois Austene Van foregoes the bland breathiness that so often diminishes the character.  She gives Blanche an edge from the very start, a slow-burn anger that makes the character passionately real.  Tall and regal, she immediately stakes out the entire flat as her territory, intimidating even Stanley.  When she blurts, “I lived in the Tarantula Arms!” we know precisely what she’s talking about, even as chills run down our spine.  Ms. Van recently performed to excellent effect at Penumbra and at Latté Da.  She has emerged as one of the area’s premier performers.  Don’t miss her here.

“Tall and regal” also describes Elizabeth Grullon who plays Stella with an understated spunkiness that allows her to effectively stand up to her sister.  She loves Blanche, with real power, but at the same time the combative “I’m not in anything I want to get out of” exchange is rendered perfectly.  (Grullon and Van are very believable as sisters, a tribute to their physical qualities as well as to Randy Reyes‘s expert direction.)  Grullon also plays, gorgeously, Stella’s physical passion for Stanley and thus provides a much needed balance to Blanche’s arch disapproval.

Kris Nelson gives us a sweet, slightly rumpled, soft-spoken, not terribly bright but certainly not a Neanderthal (as he is often played) Stanley.  Thus when Stanley explodes into violence it truly takes us aback.  Lovely work.  Rounding out the cast is Kurt Kwan as Mitch, giving the play a much-needed stolidity and dignity.  We see New Orleans work its heat-driven magic on him and we feel his pain when his vision of Blanche turns out to be a fantasy.

Now I quibble: the famous “Stella!” reunion between Stanley and his (pregnant) wife wasn’t staged as powerfully as it might be (even in the minimal TTT style).  I saw an early performance; maybe (one hopes) Reyes and the actors plan to work further on this.

Also, and although I realize this is a stripped down production, there was much material I sorely missed.  For example, I understand that the Newsboy had to go (he said, wiping away a tear) but I miss the moment when Blanche makes Mitch bow.  And I really missed, and truly mourned, the absence of the, “poor lady, why, that unwashed grape has transported her soul…” and “…I’ll be buried at sea in an ocean as blue as my first lover’s eyes.”  The material gives Blanche substance and power in her final moments onstage.

But these are, as I say, quibbles, and with A Streetcar Named Desire TTT offers a chance to see a great play in a unique new way.  Recommended.

Note: Ten Thousand Things performs in a variety of venues.  Check the theater website and make your rezzies early, as they nearly always sell out.

Note also that TTT has just announced their next season: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Music Man, and a new play by the terrific Kira Obolensky.

For more information about John Olive please visit his (recently updated) website.

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