The Thinking Man's Idiot

The unruly brain and bad habits of a writer, artist, and grilled cheese sandwich-enthusiast.

Missed its Stop: ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ at Ubuntu Theater

Streetcar Named Desire at Ubuntu - programme

“The sort of life which I had previous to this popular success was one that required endurance, a life of clawing and scratching along a sheer surface and holding on tight with raw fingers to every inch of rock higher than the one caught hold of before, but it was a good life because it was the sort of life for which the human organism is created. I was not aware of how much vital energy had gone into this struggle until the struggle was removed. I was out on a level plateau with my arm still thrashing and my lungs still grabbing at air that no longer resisted. This was security at last. I sat down and looked about me and was suddenly very depressed.”
– Tennessee Williams, The Catastrophe of Success (1945)

If there’s one actor cliché I hate as much as “break a leg” or referring to MacBeth as “The Scottish Play,” it’s when an actor thinks of a character from a favorite play and says “I can’t wait to play that someday.” Even in high school, I always found this phrase incredibly narcissistic, as if this one role of this one play – both of which are so well-defined that you mentioning them is akin to name-dropping – weren’t defined by all the actors who played the role before; not event those for whom roles were specifically written. No, the world is waiting with bated breath for you – yes, you – to take grace this well-trod territory and make the role your own.

And yeah, I know how that may sound from a guy who played Puck last year. But at least I didn’t harbor any illusions that my interpretation would rewrite the book on Shakespeare’s famous gender-neutral sprite.

And though Shakespeare continues to be performed year-round (with good reason), I dare say that the most frequent “someday” play is Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. You know it, you’ve seen it, you’ve memorized it. You see it pop up on local theatre listing every two years, whenever a company doesn’t want to do Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. (Streetcar was performed in SF at The Shelton in 2016 and will be performed by Af-Am Shakes very soon.) It’s so ingrained into the cultural consciousness that it’s damn-near impossible to do a production of it without just doing bad impressions of the film version.

Still, given its ubiquity and cultural significance, the play is ripe for a deconstructive interpretation. In the age of #MeToo, it’s long past time that a play famous for making a sex symbol out of a rapist be looked at through contemporary eyes. Unfortunately, there’s a difference between deconstructing a classic work and just making a lazy production. This, sadly, is the latter.

I won’t recount the plot as I usually do. It’s Streetcar. More people know the plot of Streetcar than those who know what happens to Humpty-Dumpty. My repeating it here would just be redundant. Instead, I’ll start off with what aspects were truly inspired.

The first of which is Champagne Hughes as Eunice. Traditionally thought of as a thankless role, Hughes (with whom I once worked) completely invigorates Eunice. She doesn’t chew the scenery or attempt to steal focus, she merely commands it with her understanding of the character. Equally great is Regina Morones in a variety of the play’s smaller roles – the paperboy, the flower woman, and the doctor in the climax. I last saw Morones in her heartbreaking turn as Hermione in Af-Am Shakes’ production of A Winter’s Tale. Here, she isn’t so much a collection of characters as she’s a disembodied spirit wandering in an out of the lives of these characters. She gracefully goes from sexy (as a singer) to naïve and innocent (the paperboy) to sad (flower woman) to strict (doctor) with the greatest of ease.

With such iconic lead roles as these, Lisa Ramirez (Ubuntu’s Associate Artistic Director) and Sarita Ocón could have easily phoned in their respective roles of Blanche and Stella. Instead, I see my notebook is full of bits about how the two bring so much heart to two characters that are often thought of only in melodramatic terms. Sometimes I felt Ramirez went a touch over-the-top, but she’s playing a woman who starts off the play with a growing alcohol addiction to counter her ever-looser grip on reality. Ocón plays Stella as neither a passive character from a Tammy Wynette song nor as someone with Stockholm Syndrome. She plays Stella as someone conscious of her choices, ill-thought though they may be. These two actresses breathe wonderful life into these old characters. Add in Erik Jon Gibson’s easy-to-miss performance as Steve and you have the best of the cast.

Finally, Nick Benacerraf’s set works in moments we don’t see coming, like the rear-audience red velvet curtains opening to reveal Blanche or one of Morones’ roles. Anton Hedman’s sounds are well done and when Stephanie Johnson’s lights weren’t suffering from opening night SNAFUs, they were nicely atmospheric. And the directorial choice to have Blanche change her clothes whilst standing in her suitcase was truly an inspired touch.

Unfortunately, there’s almost nothing more I can say in the production’s favor. For every choice above made right, at least two or three are made wrong. The most egregious being the casting of Ogie Zulueta as Stanley. Whereas Ramirez and Ocón find the heart of their characters, Zulueta falls into each and every trap one fears they’ll see when they walk into a production of Streetcar. From his first line, he struggles with the Louisiana accent, he mumbles dialogue, he lacks the intimidation to make Stanley frightening (not helped by the fact that he’s at least half-a-foot shorter than Ramirez), he lacks the swagger to make him sexy, and Zulueta chews each and every piece of scenery he comes near. It’s akin to watching a high-schooler – fresh off his first and only Drama class – insisting that he can play in Glengarry Glen Ross.

Not helping matters are directorial choices that really make no sense. With a production this spartan, it’s understandable that the show won’t have the budget for elaborate set piece – point in fact, the use of a staircase to represent Steve & Eunice’s apartment, the single curtain cutting through the set, and the use of luggage as chairs are all well done. But that illusion is broken when Steve and Eunice stand next to Stanley and Stella, who look upwards, pretending not to see them. Streetcar isn’t a show that takes to bare sets the way Our Town or Sarah Kane’s Crave do. And further curious choices, like having Stanley hang out like a vulture or gargoyle during Mitch and Blanche’s date, are just head-scratching to watch.

But the worst choices come at the very end. They stand as the worst because they show a fundamental misunderstanding of the material. The first is Morones as the doctor. As I said above, she’s a fantastic actor, but this production amalgamates both the doctor and the orderly into the same character. This doesn’t work because this means the doctor has to be the one to wrestle Blanche to the ground. The whole reason Blanche trusts the doctor is because everyone, up to and including the orderly, has been hostile to her – everyone but the doctor, who merely extends his hand gentlemanly. By making him just another hostile person, there’s no logical reason for Blanche to trust him.

Following this, this production ends by taking a cue from the film and having Stella leave Stanley. Although I understand the revisionist reasoning behind this, it’s still a bad choice. The point of Stella staying with Stanley at the end is that it’s a kind of cosmic punishment. When her sister warned her about Stanley after the poker game, Stella was defiant. Now Blanche’s prediction has come true, but on Blanche, not Stella. And Stella has to live with the consequences of it. Staying with Stanley is like being sent to Hell for her sins.

This production doesn’t get that, meaning it doesn’t get Williams’ play at all.

If I had to pick the most uncomfortable moment of this production, it would be at the start of the rape scene. A few people next to me giggled. Then, a few people on the other side of the audience giggled. I didn’t join in and the giggling wasn’t sustained, but it was indicative of how impossible it was to take this production seriously. It attempts post-modern revisionism of an American classic, but comes off as obsessed with its own self-importance in its attempts to slaughter a sacred cow. It’s like trying to use a two-string bango to play a movement written specifically for sextet.

There are moments of brilliance and half the cast is a genuine delight, but this production doesn’t put the play in a new light. Paradoxically, it just tries to blind you with its lack of flash.

GRADE: D-

A Streetcar Named Desire is scheduled to run until the 25th of February at the Alice Collective in Oakland.
The show runs roughly 2 ½ hours with one 15-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

2 comments on “Missed its Stop: ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ at Ubuntu Theater

  1. Pingback: Of ‘Rags’ and Richies: ‘Ragtime’ at Berkeley Playhouse | The Thinking Man's Idiot

  2. Pingback: 2018: the YEar i didn’t give up – The Thinking Man's Idiot

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