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Will audiences blanche?


“I think Blanche duBois would make a very good theater director,” declares Ivo van Hove. Anyone who saw his controversial existentialist take on O’Neill’s More Stately Mansions at New York Theatre Workshop two years ago knows he’s only half joking. In the avant-garde director’s new venture, again at NYTW, he’s stripped all traces of naturalism from Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. “Blanche says, ‘I want magic in my life.’ As a theater maker that’s very clear to me. I hate to rehearse where there is too much light. When we put out the lights we can stage our deepest obsessions and nightmares. There are secrets in the dark, things you cannot see well, so your mind can fantasize.”

The 40-year-old Belgian–who currently runs Amsterdam’s Holland Festival and Het Zuidelijk Toneel, one of the Netherlands’ leading theaters–has made his reputation with a repertoire of eclectic productions, which include three plays by O’Neill. “I like the roughness of O’Neill,” says van Hove. “He is always too long, but it is written with blood and tears–he really wants to live his obsession to the end.” Van Hove believes Williams’s Streetcar is also written from the gut, even though the “well-made,” perennially popular 1947 drama
appears highly polished. “I want to show that rough diamond inside,” he says.

The director argues that over the years Streetcar has become surrounded by “foggy clichés”–helped, no doubt, by its immediate success and its allure as a star vehicle. From his viewpoint the play is an “enormously dark statement” that favors neither Blanche nor Stanley. “It’s a very objective analysis about how people cannot communicate and live together. If I try to say that in one image, I would say it is a battle between fire and water.” When Blanche leaves for the asylum there’s no victory for Stanley, van Hove notes. Everyone is left bruised at the end. “You see people who will have to live with their scars–with what they have done to each other’s bodies and minds.”

According to van Hove, Blanche (played here by Elizabeth Marvel) is no deluded butterfly. Rather, she’s fighting for her life, just like Stanley (Bruce McKenzie). The director argues that Blanche’s monologues, most of which were dropped from Elia Kazan’s celebrated film version, portray a woman who “gives very clear-cut analyses of her situation.” She has no illusions about how the family property Belle Reve came to ruin, or, for that matter, how her promiscuous sex life got her run out of town. “She’s a tough cockroach–you cannot destroy her,” says van Hove. “In every scene in which she gets another knockdown, she will rise like a phoenix from the ashes.”

To emphasize the heart of darkness in Williams’s play, van Hove and his longtime designer Jan Versweyveld focus on Blanche’s acute photophobia. They have removed the traditional walls of the Kowalskis’ New Orleans apartment and created a “torture chamber” entirely with blocks of light. While everyone else is perfectly comfortable bathed in bright illumination, Blanche literally scurries out of the glare, seeking her magic in the dark. Blanche’s discomfort and total incompatibility with her surroundings are thrown into relief by the expressionist soundscape of New Orleans noise and music that is created live by composer Harry de Wit. Taking center stage is a bathtub–Blanche’s refuge after her bouts with Stanley. “This should be her ‘rocket to the moon,’ as she calls it,” says van Hove. “Here she can live in her own world. She sings and she’s happy.”

Van Hove clearly relishes the opportunity to “come into the cage of the lion” with a bold take on a play that, as he puts it, New York has claimed as its own. And he offers a bold comparison between O’Neill and Williams as well. “I’m going to say something very dangerous,” he says grinning, “but perhaps O’Neill was much more of a sentimentalist about life.” Sentimentalists, the director believes, think things will last forever, like the lead character Simon in More Stately Mansions–the industrialist with a touch of the poet–who’s left with the
illusion that rebirth is possible. Williams, on the other hand, is a “real romantic,” who, along with enormous longing and desire, holds the conviction that there’s an end to everything. Blanche fatalistically “keeps searching for something poetic and spiritual,” the director concludes, “knowing perfectly well that the
reality of life is very different.”