Correction 7/12/10: When I wrote this review, I was unaware that the script dictated the use of sound effects. This fact clearly puts the effects’ use in the production in a new light, and I apologize to any readers who were misled by my review. I have written a blog entry reconsidering this review.
My friend Nicky has a bacon beard, created for a beard contest. (She won fame, but not the contest.) After weaving the cooked bacon into a beard, Nicky laminated her creation so that the bacon is forever preserved in its original succulent state. When you see the bacon beard up close and hold it, though, it’s rather grotesque. You can see that the bacon was originally cooked to perfection, but the hard glossy coating turns it into something weird, and wrong.
The laminated bacon beard could be a metaphor for the character of Blanche in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire—born to privilege, later hidden beneath an impermeable façade of pretension and delusion—but unfortunately it also makes for an apt comparison to the Streetcar production currently playing on the Wurtele Thrust Stage at the Guthrie Theater. The play itself remains intact as one of the towering classics of American theater, but this production adds a commercial sheen that’s completely unnecessary and for which the word “distracting” is inadequate.
|a streetcar named desire, presented through august 29 at the guthrie theater. for information and tickets ($24-$60), see guthrietheater.org|
Unlike Stanley Kowalski, I’m man enough to admit when I’ve done wrong—and I did wrong to wait until Saturday night’s performance to properly acquaint myself with Streetcar. (It’s just one of those things that slips by you. I’ve never seen Glass Menagerie either, and you are welcome to take that as justification to stop reading now.) Still, the play is such a cultural landmark that it’s like visiting New York City for the first time when you grew up in Minnesota—for somewhere you’ve never been, it seems oddly familiar. Stanley sweating in his t-shirt, Blanche DuBois as the epitome of obnoxious entitlement, lines like “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers” and “Stella!”
So for better or for worse, I had a pretty clear idea of what impression these characters were supposed to make, and for better or worse, the actors cast by director John Miller-Stephany fit my mental bill. As Blanche, Gretchen Egolf stays the course and remains resolutely a diva, properly confident in the material to carry her, in due time, to the edge of madness. Stacia Rice makes a superbly down-to-earth Stella, touching in her steadfast devotion to her brusque husband. As Blanche’s beau Mitch, Brian Keane takes a while to summon much gravity, but by the play’s conclusion he’s convincingly tortured.
Ricardo Antonio Chavira (known nationally for his role in Desperate Housewives) has a Brando-size t-shirt to fill as Stanley—one of theater’s most famously erotic characters—and he doesn’t. (My friend Leslie observed that Chavira’s shirt actually hangs loose on him, making him seem physically small. It would be interesting to know whether this was a conscious decision by costumer Matthew J. LeFebvre.) Chavira excels at comic bantering and playful flirting, but when it comes time for him to throw women on beds, he’s unconvincing. As his wife, Rice has a subtle slow-burning sensuality that might have been used to make things a little more interesting—but in this missionary-style production, she’s left to lie back and think of Target.
The casting is one of the many aspects of this production that are relatively safe, but when it comes to sound and lighting, Miller-Stephany—with sound designer Scott W. Edwards and lighting designer Peter Mumford—places some high-stakes bets that cost the show dearly. In a play as superbly-written as this, there’s absolutely no need for melodramatic sound effects and showy lighting cues to underline dialogue and events. When an audible gunshot accompanied Blanche’s reminisce about a past tragedy, I had to look around me to confirm that I was watching a classic play at the Guthrie and not a made-for-TV movie on Lifetime. At one point an echo effect is used behind an ominous line of dialogue, a move so cheesy it makes the mischievous turkey in A Christmas Carol look avant-garde.
Overall, is this a terrible production? Certainly not. Could it have been worse? Yes, in so many ways. Like Nicky’s bacon beard, Streetcar is still impressive, even in laminated form. But if I were Nicky, I wouldn’t keep that thing lying around.