If "pretense" means pretending to be something other than what you are, theater is (by definition) pretentious. But even by that particularly elementary standard, the people behind this production of A Streetcar Named Desireappear to be a particularly pretentious bunch. They bill themselves as the Insurgo Theatre Movement (ITM), and in press releases, they claim to be "the seed group of the recent essentialist movement in community theater in Orange County."
Advance word on this production of Tennessee Williams' 1947 drama was that ITM would "fuse the naturalism of the Method with the fantastical and epic visual style that the theater is capable of."
Ambitious talk. But the company's debut production shows very little in the way of fantastical or epic. Instead, this is a straightforward, well-mannered (perhaps too well-mannered) production of one of the truly Great American Plays. No directorial tweaking, no radical interpretation. Basically, just another production.
But still, that's "just another production" of an undeniable masterpiece. And while director John Beane (who doubles as ITM's managing director) doesn't do anything to make us look at Streetcardifferently, he and his talented ensemble do pull off a demanding play. (The fact that they pull it off without any style or voice of their own is something ITM may want to investigate.)
Thanks largely to Marlon Brando, we all know the story by now: Blanche DuBois (Jessica Topliff) arrives at the doorstep of her sister Stella's (Jesse Runde) New Orleans flat. On the downside of a nervous breakdown and fleeing from the loss of her family's stately plantation, the once-proud and dignified Blanche is now a hard-drinking neurotic with an orchestra of skeletons rattling up a symphony in her closet.
Stella's husband, Stanley (William Tanner), takes an instant dislike to Blanche. An earthy Pole with an industrial-strength pump in his testes, he doesn't like her affectation, doesn't believe her stories and basically thinks she's a part of the fading Southern aristocracy that hates men like Stanley. The conflict between Stanley and Blanche sets the stage for all the tragedy that comes.
With good reason, Streetcarhas been the subject of much analysis. This is a play that works expertly on two levels—as a stylized meditation on the decline of the Old South as seen in the decline of Blanche and as a brutal and visceral romp through all seven of the deadly sins. Simmering beneath Williams' stylized writing are the elements that make for a rousing skim of the adults-only section of the local video store: nymphomania, satyriasis, alcoholism, repressed homosexuality.
While we can see both tracks in this production, the action rattles uneasily on each. Rarely do the elements come together in all their explosive and poignant potential. Chalk it up to a lack of tone or mood. While the set design effectively captures the Kowalskis' small flat, there's something missing in the atmosphere. This should be a noisy, sweaty, smelly play. It takes place in the French Quarter, one of the noisiest, sweatiest, smelliest places on earth; too often, this feels like a chamber drama—too delicate, too refined. Even when Stanley and his cronies are playing poker in the kitchen, it seems like a bunch of guys trying to be quiet so they don't wake Mom.
The main players are fine. Tanner's Stanley (with an upper body like one of those guys on the cover of a men's health magazine) certainly looks the part and commands attention. But like the play as a whole, he lacks an edge. His actions seem premeditated, and he comes off as too thoughtful; he lacks that dangerous air of spontaneous combustion that makes Stanley memorable. Topliff nails Blanche's desperation and descent into madness but doesn't always project the sexual hunger we need to see in order to buy the fatal attraction between Blanche and Stanley.
The standout character is, strangely, Stella. Generally portrayed as a girl so enamored of Stanley that she'll forgive any drunken excess, Runde's Stella possesses more character, dignity and inner resolve than any I've seen. This is a woman truly in love: she knows Stanley is flawed but is able to look deeper to see someone else within.
Though it may lack an edge and raw energy, this remains a serviceable production and an undeniably ballsy first-time choice for a theater company. We can't yet say that ITM will take us places, but there's enough in this show to make us eagerly anticipate the troupe's next stop.
A Streetcar Named Desire by the Insurgo Theatre Movement at the Hunger Artists Theater, 204 E. 4th St., Ste. 1, Santa Ana, (714) 870-0598. Opens Fri. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through April 14. $8-$10.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Orange County art and theater scene.