Arts Listings

Williams’ ‘Streetcar’ at Altarena Playhouse

By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet
Thursday May 21, 2009 - 10:15:00 AM

I’m keepin’ a little notebook of the quant phrases I’m pickin’ up around here,” says Blanche DuBois, an unexpected guest (in the grander sense of the word) in her sister and brother-in-law’s squalid little French Quarter “rooms.” 

“You ain’t picked up nothin’ here I never heard before, “ shoots back her hostile brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski. 

Battle lines are clearly drawn from the mo-ment Blanche steps off the eponymous Streetcar Named Desire and into the Kowalski menage. But there’s a war going on, bigger than the battle, even if it spells Blanche’s Waterloo—the war between Blanche and Reality. “I want magic. That’s what I give to people. I do misrepresent things ... I tell what ought to be true.” 

Gambler, salesman, “man’s man,” proud second-generation American—and a hustler in more ways than one—Stanley has his little reality divvied up carefully, knowing what’s his—and what he wants and hopes to get. A grandstander, part of his pose is denying he has one. He resents Blanche’s intrusion, being upstaged in his virility by a doubly feminine presence, a kind of female impersonator who’s still a woman when all the get-up, feathers and perfume are stripped away. (Some of Blanche’s lines—and she speaks in lines, even in stage directions—sound curiously like a passive-aggressive Mae West.)  

Wary of her influence over her sister, his adoring wife, he invokes the Napoleonic Code, or is reduced to bellowing like a child, screaming for his mother—the famous “Stella! STELLA!” scene. 

And finally Stanley crows that he’s “got the dope on Blanche.” While Stella’s away giving birth, the war of words—of euphemisms, one-upsmanship, thinly veiled insults and threats—turns deadly, though it seems no aggression can root out Blanche’s reverie, serving as another cue like that “something stuck in your head.” 

Reflections on Tennessee Williams’ post-war classic, occasioned by the splendid production onstage right now at Altarena Playhouse. And these thoughts barely graze the surface. Against the brassy, puffed-up zeppelin of a show usually offered audiences going to see Streetcar (and yet the deliberately stagey, campy element of travesty is inevitably suppressed or ignored in the most overblown versions), SueTrigg has directed her ensemble with sensitivity, yet a kind of dispassion, too, so the audience can watch the intricate intermeshing of the roles, the running down of this overwound clockwork of plot and story, not hyperfocussing on any great part or moment, but allowing characterization and the very words of the text to spin out into abandon or vagueness, or blow up in everybody’s face. 

Trigg has found her Blanche in Gigi Benson, who ably reveals that prismatic yet somehow “empty soul,” as the scrap of a lost ancient tragedy refers to its heroine. Eric Herzog as Stanley has the appropriate brash relentlessness, the sense of self-regard, to match her as her conferred “executioner.” 

(The dynamics of this production work subtly, by accretion, avoiding the pitch and yaw of exaggeration of situations and lines full of exaggeration; the famous rape scene becomes terrible for the signs of violence—Stanley waving his red pajamas like a flag, like a cape, crowing over the birth of his child, later appearing suddenly in a flash of red, stalking out of the bathroom that’s been Blanche’s refuge.) 

Played in the round—normally a tough call, but here a perfect terrarium for these specimens—there’s a nice, spare touch in the simple tech effects of light and dark (by Cameron and Chris Swartzell) during Blanche’s Strindbergian monologues and a few, brief sound effects or catches of a tune. 

Veronica Mannion handily gets across Stella as healthy, normal, yet girlish, a little obtuse—the All-American Girl of Life magazine ads, Southern edition. Charles Evans captures Mitch’s plight nicely: the middle-aging mama’s boy on the verge of losing mama, easy mark for both Blanche’s mesmerism and Stanley’s brutal debunking—and hurt by, resentful of both. 

There’s some fine background—or backstairs—comedy by Karol Luque and Raymond Mark as Eunice and Steve, constantly squabbling and making up. Altarena managing director Daniel Zilber dons a Viennese beard for a turn as the asylum Doctor. Elaine Pintoe provides support in several small roles that round out a scene or two, and as the latina Flower Seller, a chiming syncopation to Blanche’s extravagance with the simple, repeated utterance, “Flores ... flores ...” And Tony Rocha as Pablo makes it an all-male foursome for poker; the real hands have been played out, though the bluffing goes on, as it’s declared, “This game is five-card stud.” 



8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m., Sunday through June 7 at Altarena Playhouse, 1409 High St. Alameda. Tickets: $17-20. 523-1553;