Leaky Heaven Circus's A Streetcar Named Desire takes intriguing risks
By Tennessee Williams. Directed by Steven Hill. A Leaky Heaven Circus production. At 820 Woodland Drive on Wednesday, May 19. No remaining performances
You had to slip into your long underwear—and maybe a down jacket—if you planned to attend Leaky Heaven Circus’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire. In this version, the audience stood outside and watched the play unfold in and around a small house on Woodland Drive, just off Commercial. The story is set in steamy New Orleans and the actors are clothed for the supposed 100-degree heat, but running around in their short-sleeved shirts and skimpy summer dresses, they risked hypothermia on opening night. The uncomfortable weather wass distracting, and several times I found myself wishing that Leaky Heaven had waited until August to mount this show.
Still, there’s a lot of intriguing risk-taking going on here. For me, that experimentation is more successful as an exploration of texture than as an exploration of text.
For those who don’t know Streetcar, it’s about neurotic, end-of-her-rope Blanche, a former southern belle who runs out of money and comes to New Orleans to stay with her sister Stella and brother-in-law Stanley. Blanche hopes for romance—and domestic salvation—with Stanley’s pal Mitch.
Although playwright Tennessee Williams’s work is often associated with the naturalism favoured by Method actors, his scripts are so poetic that they’re almost perfumed; their emotionality and heightened language make it easy for them to look ridiculous. You’ve got to ride a fine stylistic line to make Williams’s plays work—at least in traditional terms.
Under Steven Hill’s direction, Lois Anderson’s Blanche strays so far from that line that, in the early going, she becomes a caricature; she’s so sexually voracious in her interactions with Stanley—and so obvious about it—that she looks like a ’ho. It’s alienating and reductive.
Interestingly, all is not lost. Williams’s story is so iconic that when Stanley betrays Blanche, publicly humiliating her by revealing her dark sexual past, it’s easy to pick up the emotional thread. Anderson is a terrific actor. That helps. So does Hill’s staging. When Stanley shows Blanche her bus ticket back home, he’s inside the cozy house and she’s peering in through the window from the lane.
Hill seems intent on finding how far the text can be stretched without snapping. In a scene between Mitch and Blanche, the characters carry a tape recorder that plays their dialogue at double speed. Meaning is conveyed through gestures and snatches of familiar phrases. You lose nuance with this approach—so it’s not illuminating in that sense—but once again it’s intriguing to note that the essential story survives.
And there’s tons of cool texture. When Blanche tells Mitch about her young, gay husband blowing the back of his skull off, she repeats the phrase “blown away” several times, with an accompanying hand movement. When Stanley (Billy Marchenski) rapes Blanche, the two actors stand at the back of the crowd and speak their lines as video images of their characters spread across the front of the two-storey home.
All of the actors, including Sasa Brown as Stella, are splendidly committed and flexible. Newcomer Sean Marshall Jr. delivers a persuasively off-hand performance as Mitch. In Marshall’s hands, the character feels like an East Van dude, and that’s a very original take.
Much of the show takes place inside the house, so you had to run around and figure out which window to look in. Even then, you could only see fragments of scenes. But Hill stages Blanche’s birthday party in the back alley, which allowed audience members to see and hear what was going on much more easily. This relatively traditional staging allowed me the most satisfying access to the text. But I appreciated the struggle, too.