A Captive Moth

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blanchett-streetcar.jpgFor this out and proud actressexual (noun – a male, gay or straight, obsessed with larger-than-cinematic-life actresses, often seen performing in unforgettable, Oscar-worthy dramatic roles, respectfully co-opted from Nat Rogers of TheFilmExperience.net), some of my most memorable recent female images on film have come courtesy of the wonderful Cate Blanchett.  From the last scene of Elizabeth when she slowly, hypnotically walks towards the camera in Kabuki face, to that scene in The Talented Mr. Ripley when she is dreamily flitting around steamer trunks, to her somewhat overbaked, but always fascinating Academy Award-winning impersonation of Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator, I’ve always found her enthralling, and yes, larger than life, and quite possibly the best actress of her generation.  So when I heard that she was going to bring her acclaimed Sydney Theater Company (where she is co-Artistic Director with her husband, playwright Andrew Upton) production of A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by the legendary actress Liv Ullmann to the US, but only to the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, and to the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in New York, I was off hunting for tickets faster than Russell Crowe can throw a phone at a hotel clerk.  Cate Blanchett, Tennessee Williams, Liv Ullmann – man, I was as breathless as if I was wearing three layers of male spanx! Swoon!  But the swooning is highly deserved, since after seeing the production during its DC stop last weekend, I’m pretty certain that theater lovers everywhere, actressexual or not, will find this unforgivingly stark Streetcar and Blanchett’s harrowing, vanity-less, indelible performance, that rare night in the theater that they can proudly and vividly recount to their children and grandchildren for years.

Thanks to the iconic Vivien Leigh/Marlon Brando movie, in continuous re-run on television, as well as countless stage productions, from Broadway to drama school to community theater, many of us have seen the play in some form or another.  In addition to the movie, I’ve seen a Filipino translation back when I was living in Manila, a Broadway production with Jessica Lange and Alec Baldwin and the PBS TV movie that they reprised their roles in, and the Kennedy Center production with Patricia Clarkson (and a pre-Gone, Baby, Gone Amy Ryan as Stella).  So every time there is a new Streetcar production, I always have a question as to whether it will bring anything new or fresh to its audience.  This Sydney import certainly does, firstly because of Ullmann’s ascetic, unsentimental direction.  I know it may sound clichéd, but there’s an almost Bergmanesque (Liv being Ingmar Bergman’s frequent leading lady in his later films), minimalist approach to this production which is more emotionally cutting than other productions.  Stanley and Stella’s apartment is in blonde wood, almost like a claustrophobic Finnish sauna.  There’s hardly any of the usual gaudy, colorful New Orleans finery (costumes, curtains, etc.).  There’s a harshly industrial fire escape ladder that allows characters to move between the Kowalski apartment and their landlords’ upstairs which also doubles as a place to allow characters to notate the action as if they’re observers that stepped out of the play’s milieu (i.e. Blanche mournfully sitting on the bottom rung while Stella and Stanley, inside their apartment, make up, and then make love, after their violent fight).  The lighting design is stunningly conceptualized – there are no gauzy, hazy, faded beauty-like lighting effects like what other Streetcars employ;  rather scenes are lighted either in bright yellow light, or in evocative black shadows, heightening the directness of the emotions.  In Ullmann’s staging of the play, Blanche becomes more than a delicate flower trying to desperately hold on to her genteel, aristocratic past in the face of the brutal, post-World War II immigrant, industrial present represented by Stanley, the usual reading of Williams’ writing.  Rather, she is, as well, a hard-bitten woman, hiding behind pretensions and delusions, who has been beaten down by life’s bad decisions, ungrateful quid pro quos, and general distastefulness, with Stanley’s aggression towards her representing that last, leaden nail being driven into her metaphorical coffin.

And Blanchett, magnificently, uniquely creates a Blanche unburdened by our preconceptions of the character.  At the beginning of the play, she comes across highly mannered and artificial, the familiar way of most Blanches’, effectively conveying the illusions and fabrications that cocoon her life.  But through the course of the three hour duration, she vividly and painstakingly creates a revelatory portrayal, depicting Blanche with palpable nervous desperation, brilliantly manifested by the intermittent body shaking and the trapped-animal manner she adopts when she secretly lunges at Stanley’s liquor bottles; and a brittle world-weariness, as when she exhaustedly, edgily snaps at Mitch when he confronts her about her past, or when she covers her whole head with a sheet as if she’s wearing a death shroud when Stanley comes home from the hospital.  Gradually, deliberately, sometimes cruelly, Blanche’s pretend delicacy is stripped away by Stanley’s aggression and Mitch’s retreat, so that by the middle of Act II, Blanchett is emotionally raw and exposed, unforgettable in the attack scene, disjointedly stumbling around onstage, desperately, frighteningly, pathetically, with smeared lipstick, messed-up hair, and a half torn slip, as Joel Edgerton’s Stanley taunts her prior to raping her.  At the end of the play, after delivering Blanche’s famous “kindness of strangers” line, Blanchett dejectedly walks across the stage and plants herself at the foot of stage right.  There, Ullmann shines a harsh, white spotlight on her, the closest to an unforgiving cinematic closeup one can muster in the theater, and you see Cate beyond exhausted, beaten down, looking like she was run over by ten herds of Pamplona bulls, inarguably defeated, making the tantalizing point that maybe Blanche, instead of being insane, is actually lucid enough to have recognized that going to the insane asylum is her only chance at a safe harbor.  It is an uncomfortably voyeuristic final image, seeing this world-famous performer so emotionally and psychologically bare, but it’s also unforgettable and so appropriate for the vision of this particular Streetcar.

With Blanchett setting such a high bar for performance, all the other actors must be at the top of their game as well, at the risk of blending into that blonde wood set like a brown vase.  I firmly believe that every Stanley will always be compared, and informed, by Marlon Brando’s legendary performance, but Edgerton does a pretty exceptional job.  Although Edgerton captures the rough-butch sensuality very well, he isn’t as menacing as Brando, but I don’t think that’s a particularly bad thing.  I like the fact that Stanley is a little bit more vulnerable, as can be gleaned from his little-boy hurt look when he overhears Blanche trash him to Stella, or from the nervous, semi-falsetto laughter he breaks into now and then.  Although some in DC didn’t particular care for Tim Richard’s Mitch, I actually liked the performance; again capturing surprising vulnerability in a character that has often been played as a noble but spineless Mama’s boy (I think it’s fantastic to have Mitch sob through the entire final scene as Blanche is led away by the asylum officials).  I don’t think Robin McLeavy’s Stella, a little bland, a little unassuming, is as strong as other Stellas I have seen in the past (Amy Ryan was as towering, and at times more riveting, than Patricia Clarkson in the Kennedy Center production of a couple of years ago), but I think it’s a deliberate choice by both the director and the actress – in this version, Stella is then more highly believable as a devoted, but shrinking violet, younger sister living in an older sister’s gigantic shadow, whose possibly unarticulated hostility against her sister and their family drives her to seek out a man and a life that is their direct opposite.  All the other actors are credible as well, but ultimately it is the Blanchett-Ullmann-Williams show, and everyone’s just complementary players in that world.

The Sydney Theatre Company’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire is at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater until November 21.  The rest of the run is sold-out.  The production then transfers to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City beginning November 27 and runs till December 20.  That production is sold-out as well, although a limited number of front orchestra seats are available to Friends of BAM at the Benefactor level (a $1,000 donation!).  $1,000 for a ticket?  I loved the show and loved Blanchett, but man, Joel Edgerton better be my personal houseboy for a week if I’m going to fork over that much money for a play!

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