Saturday, December 5, 2009

Liv Mentors Cate

A Streetcar Named Desire
Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Liv Ullmann
Starring Cate Blanchett, Michael Denkha, Joel Edgerton, Elaine Hudson, Gertraud Ingeborg, Morgan David Jones, Russell Kiefel, Jason Klarwein, Mandy McElhinney, Robin McLeavy, Tim Richards, Sara Zwangobani

November 27-December 20, 2009
BAM Harvey Theater
651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn

A Streetcar Named Desire hasn’t fared well lately on Broadway—consider botched revivals like the Roundabout’s 2005 disaster with Natasha Richardson and John C. Reilly and a 1992 production with Jessica Lange and Alec Baldwin—so kudos to a Scandinavian director and a troupe of Australian actors, who have returned the poetry and poignancy to Tennessee Williams’ classic drama.

Director Liv Ullmann and the Sydney Theatre Company have taken Williams’ overfamiliar melodrama and given it a freshness and vulnerability rarely seen since its 1947 premiere that Elia Kazan directed with Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy as the indelible Stanley Kowalski and Blanche DuBois.

This very solid Streetcar begins with Ullmann’s career as a risk-taking, fearless actress in Bergman films, which pays dividends in her mostly unadorned and realistic directing. Ralph Myers’ dilapidated, drab set of the Kowalskis’ New Orleans home is the perfect embodiment of lives gone to seed.

Ullmann’s Streetcar, an emotional roller coaster and endurance test (it runs well over three hours, even with cuts), is anchored by Cate Blanchett’s Blanche, a survivor who doesn’t know how much longer she’ll survive. Ullmann’s fierce honesty as an actress has rubbed off on Blanchett, and there are little of the flowery mannerisms she used like a crutch in 2006’s BAM Hedda Gabler. Instead, her understated acting stimulates more sympathy until the misconceived ending, when she rides Williams’ poetry too hard; that Ullmann allows Blanche the indignity of leaving while in a slip instead of properly dressed is also problematic.

Still, Blanchett’s Blanche is merely part of a cohesive ensemble that underlines Williams’ genius at detailing his colorful characters. As Blanche’s sister Stella, Robin McLeavy gives a strongly compassionate performance, and she also sounds the most authentically Southern in the cast. McLeavy and Joel Edgerton (Stanley) have erotically explosive chemistry; happily, Edgerton reminds us of Brando’s legendary portrayal without blatantly impersonating it. For once, we actually see Stanley as a real man, not an “ape” or a “Polack.” There’s not a weak link in Ullmann’s entire cast.

This Streetcar suffers from a nagging problem with the set: the apartment building’s fire escape is shown as a cramped staircase where the performers must literally squeeze through and around each other to negotiate the tight space. Several scenes staged in this area bog down in this corner. Otherwise, imaginative directing, harmonious ensemble acting and Williams’ indestructible play culminate in a heartrending spotlight on Blanche’s lost, lonely face, as shattering an ending I’ve seen at BAM since Ullman’s mentor, Ingmar Bergman, was a regular visitor there.
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