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STELLLLLLLLLLLLA!!!!!!!!!!!Tennessee Williams Festival Opens


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#1 Alexandra

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Posted 14 May 2004 - 12:29 PM

The Kennedy Center's Tennessee Williams' Festival opened last night with "A Streetcar Named Desire". The Festival will not only present other Williams' plays ("Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" with Mary Stuart Masterson as Maggie, and "A The Glass Menagerie," with Sally Field as Amanda Wingfield) but providing educational materials (see the center's web site: www.kennedy-center.org ) and a one-man show (the man being Richard Thomas) concocted of Williams' letters ("A Distant Country Called Youth.") Lots of performance plus events, etc.

I saw several dance people there last night -- if others saw this, I hope you'll post your thoughts.

I was very glad to see the play again, and I think the Festival format -- focus on one artist in depth -- is good for the city and good for the art form. That said, this production was a bit disappointing. The director seemed to have confused "Streetcar" with "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn." Stella earnestly skuttled for lemon Cokes, Mitch was embarrased about perspiring and Blanche fanned herself liberally, but there was no heat and no sexual tension. Each scene was presented, one by one, as though it were a Power Point presentation. Nothing built, nothing exploded. Aside from that and major miscastings in the roles of Stanley and Blanche, it was just fine.

Stanley was, at all times, the cleanest person on stage, a decent boy, the kind you want to bring home to mother. In the first act, Stanley has a speech where he explains the Napoleonic Code to Stella; it's something he picked up in the army or in a poker game. For Adam Rothenberg's Stanley, it's something he learned at Columbia Law school. Rothenberg does the best job he can -- looks great without a shirt, roughs up Stella right fine, but has a tender side. So tender, in fact, that you start to root for him. GET BLANCHE, STANELY. SHE DESERVES IT.

Patricia Carlson plays Blanche as though she's 45 rather than 30; at that age, she would have been desperate for many years, closer to the defeated woman in "The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone" than Blanche. This Blanche is cheap from the start, calculated, deliberately manipulative and rather unlikable, a kind of corporate executive -- CEO of the Weeping Willow Perfumerie, say -- down on her luck. She doesn't believe in her own illusions, and, save for the scene where she explains her past to Mitch (which I thought was quite real and very touching), there's no vulnerability. Learning about Blanche's past was no surprise. In the final scene, there was no breakdown, no sense that Blanche had been completely shattered by the rape.

Mitch (Noah Emmerich) and Stella (Amy Rush) were both quite good, I thought. The audience seemed happy -- lots of applause, rolling standing ovation (the kind where people in the front leap to their feet and the rest of the audience gradually rises so they can see what's going on).

I haven't seen the 1951 film (THE film, the Brando-Vivian Leigh film) for at least 15 years, but I thought of it constantly. Replaying it in my head, I realized how stunning an actress Leigh was.

Did anyone else go?

#2 Ari

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Posted 14 May 2004 - 01:51 PM

Thanks for the review, Alexandra. I'm seeing it next week. I hope by then the production and performances will have improved.

The festival actually opened a few weeks ago with Five by Tenn, an evening of five one-act plays, four of which were having their world premiere. It was produced by the Shakespeare Theater, although presented at the KC's Terrace Theater. The ST's AD, Michael Kahn, gave the plays the deluxe treatment; I can't imagine them being done better. While none came close to being a major work, all were interesting and it was a very enjoyable evening for fans of the playwright. The five plays were linked by an actor playing Williams who talked to the audience, using text taken from his autobiography. The most substantial and interesting of the plays was one called And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens, about a lonely New Orleans drag queen who desperately tries to hold onto a worthless young tough he picks up. Wonderful performances by Joan van Ark, Kathleen Chalfant, and Cameron Folmar as the drag queen.

I like the idea of festivals like this, too, but I do wish the KC had been more adventurous in its choice of plays. Streetcar, Glass Menagerie, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof are Williams's three best-known and most frequently performed works, and he wrote so many others. His later plays are considered difficult, probably because we haven't yet figured out how to stage and watch them. It would have been rewarding to see the KC take a crack at some of them. The Arena Stage is doing one of them -- Orpheus Descending -- and it should be interesting to see how they make out with that.

This is the second of Michael Kaiser's theater festivals, the first having been Stephen Sondheim two years ago. I wonder who they're considering for the future.

#3 Alexandra

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Posted 14 May 2004 - 02:26 PM

Thanks, Ari (I'd like to see some that weren't The Old Standards, too). I'll be interested to read what you think. This didn't look like a rough draft, to me. It was quite polished. But I thought the two leads were singing in the wrong key.

#4 Watermill

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Posted 14 May 2004 - 07:57 PM

A Streetcar without sexual tension? That's like Giselle without love.
This Stanley reminds me of Philip Anglim's "nice" Macbeth at Lincoln Center in the early 80s.
Did not see it, but Jessica Lange's Broadway Blanche was said to have been memorable. Sally Field as Amanda? It's going to take a strong director to hold the reigns on that bit of casting. Have the stage carpenters ready to repair some seriously chewed scenery...
I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Williams during a production of a revival of his ill fated Small Craft Warnings He had a resigned world-weary charm about him that was both sad and delightful. Very few, if any, American playwrights have scaled the early heights he attained in the realm of "poetic realism".

#5 Watermill

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Posted 18 May 2004 - 06:21 AM

Ben Brantley in the New York Times seemed to share your basic assessment, Alexandra.

If Blanche has been demythologized here, so inevitably has Stanley. Playing a character that will forever be associated with Marlon Brando in a T-shirt, Mr. Rothenberg makes Stanley conspicuously younger than usual, with a voice that slides bizarrely into goofy adenoidal squeakiness. His taunting of Blanche reads as instinctive instead of sadistic, rather in the manner of a child who dissects a live bug, and it makes his climactic acts of cruelly all the more unnerving. But while you might think that a boyish Stanley would be the perfect mate for Ms. Clarkson's chicken-hawkish Blanche, there is only a weak sexual current between them.



#6 Ari

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Posted 20 May 2004 - 06:11 AM

I saw Streetcar last night and pretty much agree with Alexandra's and Ben Brantley's assessements. Patricia Clarkson, a good actress elsewhere (she plays Frances Conroy's sister on Six Feet Under and was Julianne Moore's bitchy best friend in Far From Heaven) was miscast. Yes, she was too old, but age is an elastic thing in the theater (as opposed to film); years ago I saw Rosemary Harris, then in her forties, play Blanche and I didn't think about age. Clarkson simply had too firm a grip on reality to be convincing. This was especially true in the first act. After that she seemed more scattered, but never vulnerable. She had to work hard for all her effects, and Blanche is supposed to be an open wound, exposed.

Adam Rothenburg was also miscast as Stanley. Too young, too cute, too boyish, not feral enough. He never seemed dangerous. The lack of sexual tension was mostly his fault, I think. Clarkson vamped it up like mad but Rothenburg seemed completely uninterested in her. Even in the rape scene he just went through the motions. His line "You and I have had this date from the beginning" was delivered without any affect at all.

I wonder if today's acting styles are partly to blame for the inadequate performances. Many of Williams's plays were created in the heyday of Method acting, which prized emotional transparency, but it is no longer in vogue. Do today's actors have what it takes to do justice to Tennessee Williams?

One performance I did like was Amy Ryan's. Hers was not the usual Stella-as-doormat interpretation; instead, she played her as an emotionally mature woman who accepts people for who they are and is adept at handling them. When she tells Blanche, "I like serving you," she is saying, "I love you and know that treating you like a queen bee is the only way for us to be happy together."

#7 Alexandra

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Posted 20 May 2004 - 07:04 AM

The Washington Post reviewer liked Blanche -- said she "wouldn't appeal to purists" -- but then went on to say how wrong (impure?) Stanley was!

I agree with you point for point, Ari. I also was struck by the "We've had this date from the beginning" line being so matter of fact.

I wasn't bothered by Clarkson's age, but Blanche's. 45 is so far from 30, in this world.

#8 Ari

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Posted 30 July 2004 - 06:30 AM

Two misses, two hits. After an absolutely ghastly production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, watchable only for a mesmerizing performance by the great George Grizzard (what a splendid actor he is, and how versatile . . . if he were British he'd be Sir George :D ), the Kennedy Center came through with a well-nigh perfect production of The Glass Menagerie. This is a play that is often performed (the small cast and unit set no doubt appeal to cash-strapped theaters) but is actually quite difficult to do well. Director Gregory Mosher guided his excellent cast around the play's traps and produced a pitch-perfect, emotionally resonant performance.

Sally Field is much less fluttery than most Amandas, sharper and tougher. Steel magnolia, indeed. For all her self-deception, she sees her family's plight and does her best to set things right. I was reminded of Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice: her methods may be crude, but she understands as the man of the family does not the importance of marrying off her daughters in order to ensure their future. Field focused on blending in with the ensemble; so understated was her performance that the special bow for her at the end seemed out of place. She was first-rate, but so was everyone else.

Laura is a role that's easy to sentimentalize, so I was grateful to Jennifer Dundas for her unflinchingly painful interpretation. She wasn't afraid to look plain, awkward, and slow. The Gentleman Caller is another tricky role: it's easy to turn him into something of a buffoon or a comment on the kind of mainstream American optimism that so clearly bypasses the Wingfields. But Corey Brill played the part straight, a decent guy whose lack of introspection makes his life seem enviably simple and clear. Played this way, with his treatment of Laura the result of a kind, open nature and not of a politician's attempt at handling a challenge, the revelation that he is engaged to be married comes as a real blow. Jason Butler Harner, as Tom, was also very good but seemed a tad below the others; still, his final speech had me in tears.

Anyone who can get to the Kennedy Center before the run ends on August 8 should try to do so. This is as good a production of this lovely play as you are ever going to see. :dry:

#9 dirac

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Posted 02 August 2004 - 01:40 PM

For what it’s worth, I’m inclined to think that Blanche is closer to 35 than 30, somewhere in there. The actresses cast tend to be about 35 or over – sometimes considerably over – although Uta Hagen wasn’t yet 30 when she did the role right after Tandy, who was pushing forty, as was Leigh. Claire Bloom was in her early thirties when she did the role in ’74, which is just about right, I think – although, as Ari notes, it doesn’t matter nearly so much in the theatre.

#10 Funny Face

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Posted 13 August 2004 - 09:49 PM

Very interesting -- how long has there been such a festival in D.C.?

We've got one here earlier in the spring along with the infamous "Stella" contest, which is a hoot. (Fellas line up to take a shot at bellowing their version of the doomed damsel's name.)


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