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STELL-AHHH! (l-r) Innvar, Stauffer and Mazzie in A Streetcar Named Desire.

Fulfilled Desire

By James Yeara

A Streetcar Named Desire

By Tennessee Williams, directed by Julianne Boyd

Barrington Stage Company, through Aug. 29

Tennessee Williams’ stage directions are daunting if not impossible: “(With heaven-splitting violence) STELL-AHHHH!”; “(Stella sobs with inhuman abandon. There is something luxurious in her complete surrender to crying now that her sister is gone. Stanley speaks to her voluptuously.) Now, honey. Now, love. Now, now, love.”

Director Julianne Boyd’s A Streetcar Named Desire, at Barrington Stage Company, is more than a match for Williams’ poetry and his stage direction. On a perfect set by Brian Prather—a multi-level evocation of a tawdry French Quarter in 1947 New Orleans, the wooden slats disintegrating, wrought iron filigree on the balcony and the spiral staircase chipped and starting to rust—Boyd and company wrestle and caress Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece to full liquid life: full of beer, bourbon, sweat, tears, blood, and those more intimate emanations life is full of and stage productions too often aren’t.

This Streetcar lives up to its Desire from the very first exchange between Stanley Kowalski (Christopher Innvar, long-time star of BSC productions and the best actor in the Berkshires year in and year out) and his fecund wife Stella (an excellent Kim Stauffer). Innvar, buffed up and with a manly gruff expression upon his face, stretches himself from his previous more urbane BSC star-turns in The Game, Cyrano de Bergerac and Private Lives. While he could easily coast on his good looks—women squealed like teenage girls at a Jonas Brothers’ concert when he stripped off his sweaty wife-beater—Innvar’s Stanley is truer to the brute in Williams’ play than even Marlon Brando. Innvar creates a Stanley who you’d expect to wear his wedding ring on his middle finger and, while the signature vocal moments might not reach “heaven-splitting” heights, Innvar finds humanity in the brute, especially in the touching scene as he listens to Blanche (Broadway star Marin Mazzie) emotionally eviscerate the unseen Stanley to his beloved Stella. While Blanche lectures Stella in the next room, Stanley stands silently in the kitchen, his tight T-shirt splattered with grease and oil, his face reflecting pain and doubt over the effect Blanche’s cruel assessment of Stanley’s mental and spiritual deficiencies will have on Stella’s desire. Being emotionally naked is far more challenging than eliciting the squeals, and Invaar’s uncertainty when he finally announces his homecoming, wondering if Stella will welcome him, enriches his performance. As does his flood of relief when Stauffer’s barefoot Stella leaps into his arms, wrapping her legs around him, kissing him, as his hands, in full view of an aghast Blanche, give a triumphant squeeze of Stella’s haunches, a smile possessing his face.

It’s one of many fine, smaller moments, which Mazzie’s Blanche matches; this is as well-acted a production as you could pray to find. While Mazzie doesn’t easily evoke the fragility of the role more delicate Blanches flutter with, Mazzie’s Blanche does command, and the narcissism of the fading trophy-wife is in full display here. A wounded, trapped tiger is less dangerous than a beautiful woman aware that her allure is fading.

Blanche’s desperation in manipulating Stanley’s best friend Mitch (the late Karl Malden won a Oscar for the role he originated, and Broadway star and UCB stalwart Kevin Carolan creates an equally strong, multi-faceted Mitch), her cougarish seduction of the young, feckless collection boy (Miles Hutton Jacoby), and her fluttering reminisces of Alan, the husband she destroyed, mark Mazzie’s creation. It’s a mark of a masterful production that an audience can empathize with both Stanley, Stella, and Blanche as well as be appalled by their actions.

Boyd’s smart choices in connecting the scenes and Williams’ rich stage directions appeal to the senses. Boyd uses Blues songs between scenes to capture the sense of the French Quarter, and the on-stage singing of Chavez Ravine (also playing Mexican Woman) and guitar playing of Thom Rivera (also playing Pablo) add to the richness of this Streetcar Named Desire. Barrington Stage Company’s production depends not “on the kindness of strangers” as Blanche flutters at play’s end, but on the talents of an excellent cast and Boyd’s firm, exacting hand to create a powerful A Streetcar Named Desire.

Wet Sheets

Ghosts

By Henrik Ibsen, adaptated by Anders Cato and James Leverett, directed by Anders Cato

Berkshire Theatre Festival, Main Stage, through Aug. 29

I suppose the Berkshire Theatre Festival should be applauded for daring to put such a grim, rarely produced classic on its Main Stage at a time when attendance at theaters is decidedly down. If only the product were worth the effort.

Even though director Anders Cato made an unforgivable travesty of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot last year on the Unicorn Stage with a concept-driven production, I had hopes that he would return to the form that distinguished his superb work on Miss Julie, The Father and Heartbreak House—all at the BTF. Certainly, Ghosts is a more responsible production than his Godot, but it is also hampered by a concept that would seem to be the reason that it feels so remote.

The ghosts in question are precepts and persons of the past whose effect on the living is stultifying and destructive. Hanging over the Alving household is the ghost of the deceased Captain Alving, whose indiscretions have left behind an embittered daughter, a sick son and a guilt-ridden wife who seeks to exorcise herself and her son, Osvald, of the ghost by using Alving’s money to do charitable work, specifically to build an orphanage. But just as destructive to the surviving Alvings are the ghosts of religious ideas and practices that have neither practical nor spiritual value.

There is much talk about the latter with Pastor Manders, a moralistic hypocrite who stands in for all such sanctimonious fools of Ibsen’s day. That Manders’ religious intolerance strikes topical chords in present-day America is a tribute to Ibsen, and to Cato and Leverett’s generally fluid translation. Unfortunately, the debate between inhumane religion and common humanity—as represented by Osvald, who has chosen an artist’s free life—doesn’t occupy enough of the play.

Too much of it amounts to endless talk from characters who never distinguish themselves as real people about whom we care and whose conflicts become ours. Perhaps some of the problem may be attributed to Cato’s approach, which seems to eschew realism in favor of expressionism. With one exception, the actors never seem to connect with each other. There is much talking at each other or, in the case of Mia Dillon’s Mrs. Alving, talking out (in 19th-century presentational manner) at the audience. The result is more akin to an extended second-rate Bergmanesque soap opera with little to relieve the tedium, save for Tyler Micoleau’s expert lighting, which features shadows of near-constant rain against one of the two walls of Lee Savage’s unrelievedly stark set.

It is indeed a soggy slog through Ibsen’s sometimes laughably dated plot and distant characters. Cato attempts to enliven the matter with ghostlike reflections (meant to represent the characters’ memories or anxieties), but the concept is merely intrusive or, from a good number of seats facing stage left, unseen, due to a major design flaw.

Normally reliable actors like Tara Franklin, Randy Harrison and David Adkins seem like mere mouthpieces, while Dillon fails at every turn to involve us in what the adapters think is a tragedy. Perhaps in the more intimate Unicorn Theatre, the only place that should have been considered for this, the actors might at least have connected with us. But I doubt it.

In his program notes, Leverett has the audacity to compare the inexorable speed and force of Oedipus Rex to this drizzle, claiming that Ghosts is such a tragedy. Balderdash. The former is a lean ninety-minute gallop through dramatic irony and horror to a dynamic catharsis; the latter is a wet trudge through discourse and dated contrivance to pathos.

Sitting through this misery was like enduring the unrelenting Berkshire rains of recent months, and emerging from the matinee (the final preview performance it should be noted) into the sun, counted for more drama than provided on stage with but one, aforementioned, exception. If only all the actors moved with the grace and spoke with the endless depth, which Jonathan Epstein conveyed in the role of Engstrand, the play might have gained resonance. Epstein’s inveigling perfomance is like warm sunlight penetrating our bones and souls.

—Ralph Hammann

Bad Terms

Quartermaine’s Terms

By Simon Gray, directed by Maria Aitken

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Main Stage, through Aug. 23

Overheard during the intermission of Quartermaine’s Terms at Williamstown Theatre Festival: “Wow, this is so depressing. Is that typical of this playwright?” The correct answer is no. Simon Gray is known for his wit and subtlety. His plays resonate with energetic and darkly comic banter, which should dance lightly over the underlying anguish. This playwright has the delicate gift of allowing an audience to laugh, not at misery, but in spite of it. As with life, Gray’s plays ricochet with agony and delight, the tone of each moment impossible to anticipate.

But the current incarnation of Quartermaine’s Terms, which closes the season at Williamstown, is so grossly misdirected by Maria Aitken that the result lacks all of Gray’s sensitivity, vitality and humor. Instead she gives us a two-year trudge through the lives of brooding, sniveling characters.

Set entirely in the staff room of a Cambridge school of English for foreigners in the 1960s, Quartermaine’s Terms is, admittedly, largely about loneliness, inaction, dissatisfaction, and the British tendency to keep “muddling on” while life crumbles underfoot. The hazards of setting a talky play entirely in one room, in the realms of emotionally muffled British academia are obvious—it inherently risks becoming stagnant and intellectual. Aitken bafflingly magnifies these downfalls with excruciatingly slow pacing and inert, nearly inexistent, blocking. Gray’s brisk staffroom banter is sluggish at best, drained of humor and energy. The play’s laughs are elicited almost solely from jokes and sight gags, not from clever nuance of language and emotion.

Aitken has misinterpreted the script as a heavy, grief-laden thing, and there is no salvaging the play from this gaffe. But she further drains the script’s power by shaping (or failing to shape) every moment with the same burdened pace and emotional weight. By attempting to imbue every moment with profound significance, the entire production is rendered insignificant. The truly poignant moments are indistinct, bogged down in the mire of the plodding production. An exquisite monologue about the frightening power of a swan’s beating wings, spoken by the play’s title character, St. John Quartermaine (and nicely performed by Jefferson Mays), is allowed its proper breath, but it’s swallowed by the moments languishing around it.

The production is bankrupt of emotional life, its characters of their vitality and passion. And without their passion, there can be no compassion for them. The cast of likely capable actors is entirely misdirected, and while Morgan Hallett (Anita), John Horton (Eddie), Simon Jones (Henry) and Mays manage to slip in some lovely and genuine moments, the unnatural pace and forced dramatic outbursts to which Aitken has guided her cast leave little room for sincerity.

While talented, Jefferson Mays is puzzlingly miscast as Quartermaine, a long-tenured but inept professor with “an amazing ability not to let the world impinge on [him].” While Quartermaine’s waning mind and increasingly frequent unintended “dozes” are largely due to the thickening fog of age, Mays is much too young for the role; it seems, perhaps, that someone should get the man to a doctor post-haste.

As Derek, Mark and Melanie respectively, Jeremy Beck, Stephen Kunken and Ann Dowd writhe with feigned tears, overwrought melodramatics and affectations. A confession made by Melanie to her former lover Henry begins with the struggles surrounding her malicious invalid mother and eventually unearths her regrets about their past. The scene begs for hesitance and nuance, but we are bombarded by flailing sobs from the start. There is no emotional journey for these characters. Aitken makes sure they make their dramatic destination clear throughout.

The set, lighting and costumes are all sufficient and expertly rendered, but production design is not merely about dressing and decoration. They should be visual representations of the director’s interpretation and, as Aitken’s direction is so deeply misguided, the technical details fail to enrich the characters or story, which is, in the end, just so depressing.

—Kathryn Geurin

 


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