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A Streetcar Named Desire
by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Tim Ocel
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

May 10, 2018

Sophia Brown, Amy Loui
Photo by Ride Hamilton
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

The 3rd annual Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis has opened with a highly ambitious main stage production. With this year’s festival concentrating on the playwright’s years in New Orleans’ French Quarter, it makes perfect sense that their headline production is Williams’s much-lauded A Streetcar Named Desire, which is set in that neighborhood in the late 1940s. Often considered Williams’s best play, Streetcar has been performed so many times at so many different levels over the past few decades, but this production is aiming to take a fresh approach, with some bold casting and directorial choices. It’s a stunning production not to be missed.

The well-known story follows the enigmatic Blanche DuBois (Sophia Brown), who arrives in the French Quarter from Mississippi to stay with her younger sister Stella Kowalski (Lana Dvorak) and her husband Stanley (NIck Narcisi), who is immediately suspicious of Blanche, who has arrived suddenly and announced she’s taken a “leave of absence” from her job as a teacher. Through the course of the play, more is revealed about Blanche, as well as about the controlling Stanley. Blanche is haunted by her past in more ways than one, as well as being threatened by the present, and by Stanley’s forceful personality and mistreatment of the devoted Stella. Blanche’s role as an outsider is emphasized by the rest of the characters, and the neighborhood itself, which is essentially a character in the play. Stanley’s poker buddies Steve (Isaiah DeLorenzo) and Pablo (Jesse Munoz) help empasize the Stanley’s primal, impulsive behavior, and their neighbor (and Steve’s wife) Eunice (Amy Loui) is at turns helpful and suspicious. There’s also another poker buddy, Mitch (Spencer Sickmann) who is different–more gentle, senstive, polite, but also something of a follower to the more forceful Stanley. Mitch is also attracted to Blanche, and they begin a tentative relationship that provides both of them with some hope, for a time. I’m not going to say much more about the plot, as well-known as it is, except to say that ultimately, this is a tragedy, told in Williams’ most poetic, lyrical style.  Everything–every character, every interaction, every moment of dialogue is important, and the brilliance of the script is highlighted here by the bold, incisive direction of this production.

Visually, this play is simply stunning, with the techical elements enhancing and augmenting the overall atmosphere and performances of the stellar cast. James Wolk’s detailed set essentially lives and breathes the French Quarter, with the emphasis being on windows and doors rather than walls. The world of the Kowalskis’ apartment and the world of the surrounding neighborhood are brought together through the use of this meticulous but open design. There’s also excellent, responsive lighting by Sean Savoie that not only helps set the mood, but changes in response to it. Michele Friedman Siler’s costumes are vividly detailed, with colors fitting the personalities of the characters and styles appropriate to the period and tone of the show. There’s also excellent use of sound by Amanda Werre and an evocative new score by Henry Palkes, bringing the French Quarter to life in an auditory sense to complement the visual.

The casting here is a little different in some roles than what has generally been done in other productions, with Blanche especially being cast younger than usual. This, according to the Festival’s press release, is to reflect Williams’ original stage directions and making Blanche around 30, which adds some irony to the frequent mentions of her age in the play. Casting younger works extremely well in this production, especially in the truly remarkable performance of Brown, who brings a mixture of hope and regret to the role, and a youthful energy as well as sense of gravity and gradual unraveling as the story progresses. It’s an outstanding performance, and the rest of the cast matches her, from Narcisi’s increasingly controlling, emotionally needy and ultimately brutal Stanley, to Dvorak’s adoring but increasingly wary Stella. Sickmann is especially effective as the conflicted Mitch, and his scenes and chemistry with Brown are especially compelling. There’s also strong supporting work from Loui, DiLorenzo, Munoz, and the rest of the strong, cohesive ensemble. Director Tim Ocel has staged this play emphasizing the relationships and sense of immediacy, and the result is profoundly effecting.

There’s only one weekend left to see this play. It’s a production I had been looking forward to for a while and it’s more than lived up to the hype. William’s briliantly scripted, poetic and emotionally volatile play has been brought to the stage in a dynamic, bold, youthful production that brings its character and setting to life with rich, visceral detail. The production closes Saturday. Don’t miss it. You have to catch this Streetcar.

Nick Narcisi, Lana Dvorak
Photo by Ride Hamilton
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

The Tennessee Williams Festival STL is presenting A Streetcar Named Desire at the Grandel Theatre until May 19, 2018

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Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis 2017
“The Magic of the Other”

Part 1

The Tennessee Williams Festival has returned for its second year here in St. Louis, this year themed around “The Magic of the Other”, highlighting the legendary playwright’s focus on people outcast from society in various ways. Alienation, loneliness, and the longing for meaningful human connection–no matter how fleeting that may be–are major themes of Williams’s work, and each of the productions I saw this year touched on those topics in one way or another.  From a humorous flight of fancy cabaret performance, to a dramatization of Williams’s own family relationships throughout his lifetime, this year’s festival, now concentrated solely in the Grand Center theatre district, brought to poignant life many memorable characters and their situations.

This is the first of two articles on the festival. In this one, I’ll talk about most of what I saw last weekend. In the second, I’ll highlight the two shows that are still running, and that St. Louis theatregoers still have a chance to check out. Now, on to the festival:

“Bertha In Paradise”

Curtain Call Lounge

May 3, 2017

Anita Jackson
Photo by Ride Hamilton
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

Bertha lives! And she sings!

This is the premise of the festival’s cabaret performance by  St. Louis Theater Circle Award nominee Anita Jackson, whose heartbreaking performance in the short play “Hello From Bertha” as part of The St. Louis Rooming House Plays was a highlight of last year’s festival. This year, the whole three-woman cast of that show was back on stage to start off this year’s festival, and the undisputed center of attention is Jackson’s bawdy, energetic, witty, and expertly sung performance as a newly energized Bertha.

Last time we saw Bertha, she was on her deathbed in the brothel where she worked, being tended to by her friend and colleague Lena (Maggie Wininger) and her boss, Goldie (Donna Weinsting). This year, in an inventively crafted cabaret performance, Goldie plays host and lets us know that, contrary to what last year’s play may have suggested, Bertha didn’t die, and now she’s back with all her style, verve, and attitude to sing a collection of jazz and blues songs and engage in a blatant flirtation with her stagehand (Joel King), and to occasionally sneak off behind the curtain with him. There was also a special appearance by Wininger, whose pregnancy has been cleverly written into her character’s story. “Remember,” Goldie reminds the audience. “It’s been a year.”  Wininger spent most of the performance seated on one side of the stage, knitting baby clothes and reacting to performances, as both Bertha and Goldie sang songs and engaged in something of a battle for the attentions of the stagehand.  Jackson was the obvious star, showing off her impressive comic skills on raunchy, innuendo-laden songs like “My Handy Man” and “If It Don’t Fit Don’t Force It”; and her astounding emotional and vocal range on classics like “The Very Thought Of You”, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, and the poignant “Paradise”. Weinsting also sang well, getting laughs with the hilarious “Anybody Here Want to Try My Cabbage”, and dueting with Jackson on “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues”. Jackson, Weinsting, Wininger, and King all joined together at the end of the performance to lead the audience in singing the old standard “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall In Love”. It was a fun evening, and a great way to start off the festival.

“St. Louis Stories”

Directed by Tom Mitchell

The .Zack

May 6, 2017

Staged by a group of theatre students from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, “St. Louis Stories” was a dramatization of several short stories and poems that Williams wrote before gaining notoriety as a playwright. Set in and around St. Louis, these stories also reflect his recurring themes of loneliness and alienation. The stories included “An Afternoon Off For Death”, in which an overworked shoe factory employee reflects on making the most of his opportunity to take an afternoon off on the occasion of his supervisor’s death. There’s also “Useless”, in which a middle-aged married woman imagines herself ill so that she can be visited by a handsome young doctor, to the annoyance of her husband. The others range from the bleak tale of two poets “Pack of Cigarettes”, the wistful, sad, and occasionally bitter “Ate Toadstools, But Didn’t Quite Die”, about a lonely single woman who is haunted by memories of a violent man from her past; to the more upbeat “The Age of Retirement”, which follows a 70-year-old retired clergyman’s moving to St. Louis to start a new life. There’s also a group reading of the poem “Middle West” in which the cast members read lines from papers that they then threw down onto the stage or into the audience. It was a fascinating collection of stories, giving insight into life in St. Louis during Williams’s time here, and also into Williams’ own growth as a developing writer. This production featured  strong performances from its entire ensemble–Joi Hoffsommer, J.W. Morriseette, Ann Marie Morrissette, Yvon Streacker, sara Freedland, and Kyle A. Thomas.

 Deseo

by Raquel Carrió

Directed by Raquel Carrió and Flora Lauten

The Marcelle Theatre

May 5, 2017

Deseo (“Desire) is an ambitious, inventively staged Spanish-language adaptation of Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire that adapts the characters and situations to reflect Cuban-American culture. It’s a minimalist staging, with very little in the way of set, and the mood is set mostly by way of Richard Rodgríguez’s fantastic lighting design, and Hector Aguero Lauten’s evocative music.  The story is essentially the same as Streetcar, but with the plots pared down to the essential elements to highlight the emotion and relationships, and a few elements have been changed to reflect the updated characters. For instance, Santiago (Carlos Caballero) and his best friend Miguel (Jorge Luis Álvarez) play pool here instead of poker like their Streetcar counterparts, Stanley and Mitch. There are stunning performances from Ana Sobero and Lilliam Vega as sisters Estrella and Blanca, and both have excellent, volatile chemistry with Caballero’s possessive, confrontational Santiago. There are some excellent, poignant moments between Vega and Álvarez as well, and Ivanesa Cabrera also turns in a strong performance and Estrella and Santiago’s neighbor and building owner, Vecina.

The staging here is particularly dynamic and intimate. The lack of a set and emphasis on movement highlights the extreme emotion of this piece. Although sometimes it was a little difficult following the action and having to constantly look at the translations projected on the side wall at the Marcelle Theatre, this didn’t really detract from the performance. This was an excellent production, bringing all the intensity of Streetcar to a new setting and language.

Tennessee Williams Tribute: “The Magic of the Other”

Curtain Call Lounge

April 7, 2017

This was the official closing night of the festival, even though there was still one more show to debut, and two productions carrying on after it closed. Before the Closing Night party at the Curtain Call Lounge, though, several notable St. Louis performers gathered to read  selections from Williams’s works and sing songs from the middle years of the 20th Century. There was even an aria from Andre Previn and Philip Littell’s opera of A Streetcar Named Desire, with soprano Deanna Breiwick giving an expressive performance as Stella. The evening’s highlights also included a reading by Jeremy Lawrence from Williams’s “Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens”,  a song-and-dance duet by father and daughter Lara and Elizabeth Teeter on “Paper Moon”, Michael James Reed reading from Williams’s adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull, and to close out the evening, the outstanding Anita Jackson returning to sing “Paradise” once again.

Ensemble 2.0 

Directed by Richard Chapman

The .Zack

April 8, 2017

This show, produced by Francesca Williams and featuring a small ensemble of talented performers, told the story of Tennessee Williams and his family by way of letters they wrote to one another throughout their lives. Here, Williams’s longtime agent Audrey Wood (Kari Ely) narrated the story starting with Williams’s parents, focusing on his mother Edwina (Angelica Page), and her relationship with her three children–Rose (Bridgette Bassa), Tom (Paul Cereghino), and Dakin (Ben Watts), as they grow up in St. Louis and then live out the rest of their lives, as Tom becomes the famous playwright Tennessee Williams, and as his family relationships and interactions influence his own life and work.

This is a fairly straightforwardly staged production with minimal set–in fact, it’s performed on the set of Small Craft Warnings–and with original music by Tor Hyams and Lisa Rothauser that helps set the mood. The performances are engaging, and I found myself invested in the story even though it was essentially a staged reading. Overall, this was a fascinating look at Williams’s life and his relationships with the various members of his family.

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