Friday, September 27, 2013

The Fall of a Moth

"A Streetcar Named Desire"  -- Yale Repertory Theatre -- Thru Oct. 12

           René Augesen in A Streetcar Named Desire. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Who knew Tennessee Williams was one of America’s major comedic playwrights?

Comedy? Yes. Well, if comedy is measured by audience laughter then Williams is right up there with Woody Allen and Neil Simon, at least based upon the audience response to Yale Repertory Theatre’s current offering of Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Now, don’t get me wrong, this is a strong production, gripping and moving, with some stellar acting, but on opening night most of the play’s first act was punctuated by (perhaps knowing...or unknowing) laughter by those in attendance. The laughter took me back a bit. What’s funny about a woman on the brink of despair desperately searching for a drink? What’s humorous about a woman, a fragile butterfly, (Williams describes her as “a moth”) who must fantasize, lie to herself and the world, to keep a shaky hold on reality? And yet laughter there was. I don’t know if director Mark Rucker and his cast worked to generate the laughs: if they did, then they succeeded, if they didn’t then the guffaws must have been a bit of a shock to those on stage (i.e., What the hell is going on? We’re setting up a modern tragedy here and people are chuckling?)

           Joe Manganiello in A Streetcar Named Desire. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Audience reaction aside, this is a fine production of a modern American classic. For those not familiar with the story, Stella (Sarah Sokolovic) has married an ex-G.I., Stanley Kowalski (Joe Manganiello), and is now, circa 1947, living happily in somewhat downtrodden circumstances in New Orleans, but there was a time when Stella lived a more refined life, and she is reminded of this when her sister, Blanche (René Augesen) arrives for an extended visit. Unfortunately, Blanche arrives with a past haunted by more than the loss of the family plantation. Death continually whispers in her ear, speaking of the suicide of her young husband and the subsequent demise of her relatives, all of which she has had to deal with on her own. She desperately clings to sanity, but she has unwittingly traveled on a streetcar named Desire (read multiple meanings here) to meet her ultimate nemesis, for Stanley, sensing that Blanche is a threat to his marriage and his essence as Ur-male, soon sets out to destroy her. This he accomplishes in a chilling third act, as Blanche is ultimately carted off to a sanitarium, still relying on the kindness of strangers.

Central to the success of any production of “Streetcar” is the actor who portrays Blanche, and in Augesen the Rep gives us the epitome of the fragile, faded beauty Williams created, for Augesen’s Blanche is tremulous, proud, articulate and desperate. This Blanche is a sensuous lady who has been damned by her own sensuality, a strong yet fragile creature who continuously seeks the “magic” in life that has been denied her ever since she inadvertently caused the death of her young husband. Augesen’s body language enhances the idea that this is a woman on the brink: her hands flutter about as if they are caged birds, her body stiffens, her head jerks as if she is hearing voices. Hiding from the light (of day and reality), this Blanche seems doomed from the moment she tentatively walks on stage, only steps away from damnation.

                               Sarah Sokolovic, René Augesen, and April Matthis in
                               A Streetcar Named Desire. Photo by Carol Rosegg

If Augesen seems to evoke the essence of her character, the same cannot be said for Manganiello, for during much of the evening his toughness and menace seem to rest uneasily on the surface. There’s a sense that the actor, a tall, well-muscled man, is having trouble evoking the essence of Stanley: he hooks his thumbs into his belt in a tough-guy stance, he jabs his finger a lot and raises his voice, but he can’t seem to help projecting the idea that “I’m not really like this.” However, in the pivotal third act, he seems to finally embrace the character he is portraying and becomes the caveman Blanche has described him as. His evisceration of the “moth” is riveting.

Of the three main characters, Stella, Stanley’s wife, has always been the most problematic, with critics and playgoers alike questioning why this woman would stay with such a brutish, abusive man. However, Sokolovic’s portrayal of the young woman ably answers the question. She is a woman who understands her man and revels in their mutual physical attraction. She controls him in all the subtle ways that women train their semi-housebroken mates. Near the end of the play, just before Blanche is escorted out of the apartment, she tells her neighbor, Eunice (April Matthis) that if she believes Blanche’s story about what happened the night she was in the hospital giving birth then she can no longer stay with Stanley. In the end, like her sister, she opts for illusion over reality. This line, often criticized as being unbelievable, is, as delivered by Sokolovic, totally in character.

                      René Augesen and Sarah Sokolovic in A Streetcar Named Desire.
                      Photo © Carol Rosegg

Some of Augesen’s finest moments are played with Adam O’Byrne, the play’s Harold “Mitch” Mitchell, Blanche’s ostensible suitor. The actor exudes just the right amount of need and naïveté as he tentatively courts Blanche, only to attack her after Stanley reveals her past to him, and then, in the closing moments, regrets his part in this fragile soul’s destruction.

All of this takes place on a single set, designed by Reid Thompson, that captures the essential seediness that Stella has embraced, an effect enhanced by Stephen Strawbridge’s subtle lighting, and the evening (well over two hours with two intermissions) essentially moves apace under Rucker’s direction. One might suggest that he give a little more attention to clarity of line delivery, especially with Manganiello, who seems, at times, to swallow his lines, and that, in the pivotal scene in which Stanley reveals to Stella all he has learned about Blanche, the song (“It’s Only a Paper Moon”) that Blanche is singing while she bathes could be more audible, for it is heavy with irony.

These, however, are minor points, for the Rep has put together an essentially strong cast and has done itself proud with this production. Blanche’s inevitable fall is charted with insight and growing tension, allowing the audience to have a truly cathartic experience.

“A Streetcar Named Desire” runs through Oct. 12. For tickets or more information call 203.432.1234 or visit: 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Trivial Dispute

"La Dispute" -- Hartford Stage -- through November 10
Foreground: Kate MacCluggage, Grant Goodman. Background: Tom Foran, Noble Shropshire, Robert Eli, Jake Lowenthal. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Hartford Stage is celebrating its 50th anniversary by presenting a repertory company in two plays, Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and Marivaux’s “La Dispute.”
“Marivaux? Who the hell is Marivaux?”
Well, Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux was something of a hot ticket back when Louis XV sat on his somewhat shaky throne, circa 1740. He was a prominent playwright, journalist, novelist and essayist who managed to make an enemy of, among others, Voltaire, and wrote for both the Comédie-Française and the Comédie-Italienne of Paris.
“Yeah? So what?”
Well, among other things, Marivaux’s main subject in his novels and plays was the metaphysic of love-making.
“The what?”
What we do, say and think when we fall in and out of love.
“Oh, okay. So, what about this Dispute thing?”
Well, you see, this was also the Age of Enlightenment – you know, Newton, Rousseau, the Encyclopedists – and everyone was asking questions like why does an apple fall from a tree and do I exist because I think? At the same time, the fat cats liked to have garden parties, big parties with orchestras and pavilions and lots of flowers and bowers and…
“You’re not making any sense.”
Give me a chance. So Marivaux came up with this idea: what if there’s this garden party, or fete champetre, and a prince (Grant Goodman) and his mistress, Hermianne (Kate MacCluggage), are having an on-going argument about which sex is more inclined to infidelity.
                      Kaliswa Brewster and Jeffrey Omura. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Well, the French are concerned about things like that. In any event, the prince is inclined to agree with his lady that the male, given the gender’s inherent chemistry, will fall at a moment’s notice, but he suggests that the concept be put to a test (this being the Age of Enlightenment and all) and, fortunately, there are four young folks at hand to be put to use. You see, the prince’s father had acquired four babes, two males and two females, several decades ago and had them raised by two servants – seeing no one else, never knowing that the world was larger than the four walls that enclosed them.
“You’re kidding me.”
Would I kid you? In any event, the prince orders these young folks to be released into the garden and…
“Like, it’s a Garden of Eden thing?”
Exactly – very good – so the prince and his mistress step back to watch what happens.
“Yeah, and what happens?”
Phillipe Bowgen and Mahira Kakkar. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Well, not a whole hell of a lot. Egle (Kaliswa Brewster) appears first, a young lady who is enamored of her own beauty. She’s transfixed by her reflection in a stream and, when presented with a mirror becomes rapturous. Next on the scene is Azor (Jeffrey Omura), who immediately falls in love with Egle, who confirms his decision – after all, why shouldn’t he be totally absorbed by her? Ah, but there’s a snake or two in the grass.
“Yeah, the Garden of Eden thing.”
Okay, you’ve made your point. Adine (Mahira Kakkar) shows up, a young lady also transfixed by her own beauty (after all, there’s been no competition). There’s an extended ‘who’s the fairest of them all’ scene that is ended when Mesrin (Philippe Bowgen) appears on the scene, the fourth sheltered child (whom Adine loves – how she met him is never explained). Egle sees Mesrin and falls in love with him. Oh, the angst, the agony. Egle wants them both – she wants it all. The dear girl just adores being adored.
To say this is all a tempest in a teapot or the lightest of French confections is to give it greater weight than it deserves. Stylishly directed by Darko Tresnjak, the Stage’s artistic director, and handsomely lit by Matthew Richards, the play, which runs only 70 minutes, seems to float on gossamer clouds of cotton candy. There is simply no bite to it and scant wit. This ain’t no “Les Liasons Dangereuses.”
                     Kate MacCluggage. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

That the two young women adore themselves is established early and then milked for all it’s worth; that the two young men are slaves to their libidos is, well, a given, and not much of a revelation.
“So, who wins the argument?”
It’s a draw, to be continued. You see, there are these four babies…
“Babies? Where did they come from?”
You don't know where babies come from? In any event, the girls fight, the guys fight, and, in the end, they are all left to their own devices, facing a world they are ill prepared for.
“So, it’s kinda existential?”
Yeah, you might say that.
“I just did.”
Yes, you did.

“La Dispute” runs through November 10. For tickets or more information call 860-527-5151 or go to