A Formalist Affair


Every few years, some upstart director at a remove from New York’s young avant-garde theater scene arrives in town with many of the same formal quirks, obsessions, and influences as the indigenous folks, and upturns the whole aesthetic drawer onto the floor, causing a seismic shift that makes everyone rethink their oblique strategies. In 1994, it was L.A.’s Reza Abdoh with Quotations From a Ruined City. This year it’s Dutch director Ivo van Hove’s eyebrow-
raising, harrowing, and inventive staging of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, held firmly together by Elizabeth Marvel’s fiercely virtuosic portrayal of Blanche DuBois.

Among the primary concerns of the new guard is the development of an often self-conscious relationship to their chosen text. Academics and drama critics frequently kill the joy of this process by calling it “deconstruction”— when old-school smartists like the Wooster Group fool around in their Garage, slapping Gertrude Stein against the sex exploitation movie Olga’s House of Shame, the final result looks to them too well-thought-out to be simply playful. By ripping apart or reimagining a text, avant-guardians— the good ones, anyway— are not usually obeying an analytical impluse, but
instead a desire to heighten theatricality, to make theater, as one director I know likes to say, “more of what it is.” In other words, the work accentuates the difference between a play and a staging, reminding the audience that any production
consists of a series of decisions made by someone putting their own spin on the material. Of course, this process lives right next door to indulgence and camp, and subjecting a classic to it almost always results in a cage match between author and auteur. What’s more, the results frequently run the risk of disappointing audience members who revere authorial intent and demand adherence to stage directions.

At first consideration, Tennessee Williams doesn’t seem an obvious choice for such treatment— to battle his quasi-melodrama and humid words, especially those of the familiar Streetcar, is an uphill fight, and to out-camp him impossible. Yet purely naturalistic productions of Williams can be deadly; one needs to set his language aloft with mystery or it can seem painfully pedestrian. His work cries out, as Blanche pleads in Act Two (and van Hove quotes in the program), “I don’t want realism. I want magic!” Jean Cocteau, it’s worth noting, staged Streetcar‘s French premiere.

Dutch enfant terrible van Hove— director of Het Zuidelijk Toneel, artistic director of the
Holland Festival, and soon to be head of the Netherlands’ largest theater group, Toneelgroep Amsterdam— has swum in equally dangerous waters before. Two years ago, also at New York Theatre Workshop, he exhumed More Stately Mansions, an unproduced Eugene O’Neill script that the author had wished posthumously
destroyed. Van Hove whittled the long tale of a needy mother’s will to control her son down to a hysterical three-hour extravaganza of emotional hairpin turns— a seething, stylish, irritating, and unforgettable spectacle. The director has an
incredible, cinematic way with stage pictures, freaky blocking, and emotional calibration of
actors: picture Jenny Bacon (who has returned to play Stella in Streetcar) and Tim Hopper naked, purple bruises all over their thighs, vigorously flipping each other over in a physical manifestation of their characters’ emotional turmoil, or a hundred sewing machines slowly crossing
upstage, or the distinguished Joan MacIntosh on her hands and knees delivering whole scenes in baby talk. Van Hove got O’Neill in a chokehold, but the fight was unfair, because the writer, at his most undercooked and self-pitying, couldn’t match the director’s fancy footwork.

This time around van Hove doesn’t need to compensate for such deficiencies. It’s remarkable how bizarre the director’s choices can get, but Streetcar still rings out and soars above his vision of it. If you read the script afterward, many of van Hove’s conceits appear completely logical, if overstated. The simplicity of the
production is striking. Longtime van Hove
collaborator Jan Versweyveld has omitted all large set pieces and nearly every prop, save for a few cigarettes. Stanley and Stella Kowalski’s rooming house is represented by two sharp squares of light on the floor. The photophobic Blanche DuBois frequently scurries around their edges or sits between them, half-lit. Behind and to the right is a working bathtub, further
upstage is a percussion ensemble, several of Stanley’s shirts hanging from chains, and a bench where actors change costumes. As the well-known story unfolds, with destitute Blanche overstaying her welcome in the dingy flat her sister Stella shares with her brutish husband Stanley, many objects and situations described in the words of the play are left unrepresented onstage. At the same time, other actions called for are made achingly “real.” Van Hove foregrounds the kinds of events that
cannot be faked onstage. When called upon to break some crockery, Bruce McKenzie as Stanley smashes about five plates and several quite
substantial chairs. Sometimes these displays can become disconnected from the action, but they’re incredibly bracing when they work.

Similarly, Elizabeth Marvel’s extraordinary performance masterfully skirts any temptation to make the character’s affectations the least bit transparent. In the first few scenes, her Blanche is charming and believable, spitting out staccato syllables and gravelly sotto voces with thorough investment. Once unmasked by Stanley in Scene Eight, Blanche leaps into the bathtub fully clothed— which will remain one of my favorite moments in the theater for quite a while.
Marvel’s subsequent soaking-wet pathos is all the more chilling. McKenzie has his moments, despite the Euro cyclist outfits the designers have dressed him in, and Bacon breaks even with Stella, but only Christopher Evan Welch, playing Blanche’s love interest, Mitch, approaches
Marvel’s prowess, countering her sparkle with tight-lipped, stubborn earnestness.

The balance of the entire production can get rather screwy. Van Hove will sometimes
displace the energy of one scene into a different one, undercutting the melodrama at the
expense of narrative coherence. When Stanley looks through Blanche’s strongbox for the
papers connected to the loss of the DuBois home, he acts as if the documents are in her crotch, but during their showdown it appears as if a ghost is attacking Blanche in the bathtub. Van Hove leaves just enough space for the mind to fill in the blanks and connect the dots, in somewhat the way Blanche would like the strangers upon whose kindness she depends to do. Life for this decaying diva is itself a performance, and truth, like the sort of “truth” that happens onstage, is only what you say it is.

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