Intermission is thrilled to be hosting the inaugural theatre reviews of the Emerging Arts Critics Programme 2019/20 season. Intermission is partnering with Soulpepper Theatre Company and theatre critic Robert Cushman to mentor this season’s participants.
The opening image is sparse: a suitcase, staircase, and three doors are all that occupy Lorenzo Savoini’s metallic, abstract set. Yet, it establishes the tone for the rest of the evening. You know from the opening picture that this production of A Streetcar Named Desire is going to be different. And different, it is. Weyni Mengesha’s contemporary take on Tennessee Williams’ well-worn play is daring and risky. But ultimately, it adds extra urgency to the text by highlighting the similarities in the political and social discourse of post-World War II America and our society today.
The Louisiana of Mengesha’s Streetcar is vibrant, diverse, and busy, with a cacophony of sirens and New Orleans jazz filling the air — the live jazz band’s rousing numbers, with new compositions by SATE and under the direction of Mike Ross, often make for memorable scene transitions. When Blanche (Amy Rutherford), a southern belle from a small town in Mississippi, arrives at the doorstep of her sister Stella’s (Leah Doz) house, she could not be more out of place.
After suffering a series of unfortunate events, Rutherford’s Blanche is vulnerable and fragile, living in a magical world detached from reality. Rutherford’s nuanced performance effortlessly captures Blanche’s slow demise as she is stuck in her old ways and driven by her uncontrollable desires. At the top of the show, we see a character that is brass, outgoing, and unabashedly extravagant. But as the play wears on, her veneer begins to crack. Blanche’s progression to madness, encapsulated perfectly by Rutherford, is heartbreaking. Particularly moving is Blanche’s monologue detailing her young husband’s suicide, which is subtle yet haunting.
As Stella, Leah Doz is equally compelling. Her characterization accentuates how Stella is unable to look beyond her husband Stanley’s (Mac Fyfe) sexual attractiveness and see his abusive and manipulative personality. In addition, Doz has wonderful chemistry with Rutherford. They successfully convey the complex, yet loving relationship between the two sisters, who could not be more contrasting in personalities.
But perhaps the most interesting characters in this production of Streetcar are the men. In the beginning, Fyfe’s Stanley is less angry and more dialed back than Williams makes him out to be. There are more tender moments between Stanley and Stella, and it seems that he is truly remorseful for his actions. Most times, this interpretation works. Perhaps Mengesha is trying to make Stanley more palatable for modern sensibilities, but this approach also allows the audience to sympathize with the character to a greater extent. When Blanche provides searing commentary about Stanley, calling him “sub-human” and “ape-like,” the audience empathizes with him. But as his anger escalates, leading towards a climactic scene between Stanley and Blanche, our empathy begins to break down. This complex characterization makes the audience question how far they are willing to sympathize for Stanley.
As Blanche’s love interest and Stanley’s poker buddy, Gregory Prest gives an adequate performance as Mitch. His Mitch, the only one of the men who initially treats Blanche with respect, is soft and mellow. The character is supposed to have two personalities, one that he possesses with his raucous friends, and a gentler one that he dons when with Blanche. But here too, Mengesha has toned down the little roughness that was present in the script, to the point that Mitch seems like a complete misfit with his friends. While this soft interpretation helps make the bond between Mitch and Blanche seem more realistic, like two broken souls finding solace in each other, it doesn’t work in the latter scenes, when Mitch must confront Blanche about the lies she’s concocted regarding her past.
Despite some missteps in characterization, this production is still a feast for the eyes. Mengesha and her cast make effective use of the two-tiered set; staging some scenes in the aisles also helps drop the audience right in the middle of the action. Rachel Forbes’ evocative costumes draw attention to the modern setting and hint at the personality of each character. The costumes and set design are accompanied by Kimberly Purtell’s explicit lighting design that makes the climactic moments even more sharp.
However, Debashis Sinha’s sound design feels overused at times, feeding the audience too much information—especially during Blanche’s long monologue detailing her husband’s suicide—when its emotional input could be inferred by the audience instead.
In some ways, our society has made little progress since Williams wrote his play in 1947; we are living in a time when those on the fringes of society are pushed further away—much like Blanche—leaving them to descend into isolation and a false reality. Blanche and Stanley’s fear, desperation, and hope are reflected in our world, in our lives. Mengesha’s production dares us to look into the mirror. What we see is something unsettling, jarring, but deeply moving.
A Streetcar Named Desire runs through October 27 at Soulpepper Theatre Company (50 Tank House Lane). Tickets and more information can be found here.