(Because the run is ending soon, what's below is shorter than usual.)  

Liv Ullmann’s A Streetcar Named Desire is closing on Sunday, December 20, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.  Despite this being a sold-out engagement, if there is a way to be put on standby, this really is a new interpretation, where our past associations with the play are stripped.  Wisely, Ullmann, a Norwegian working with a cast from the Sydney Theatre Company, doesn’t pretend to describe or analyze the American South: The Kowalski’s tiny white, smudged studio, designed by Ralph Myers, is the same unpainted starter apartment you moved into on coming to the city, whether it was New York, Paris, or Trenton. The outside fire escape has no spiral or French Quarter flavor that recalls the Oscar-winning sets of the 1951 film. Instead, the design is one step away from Brutalist: unimaginative, rectangular, utilitarian (the streetcar itself has the grating, grinding, underground sound of a subway, not an open-air trolley, completely de-romanticizing our thoughts on New Orleans and clarifying the play’s title as sexual, repetitive, continuous).  Other Southern Gothic stereotypes are gone, too.  Cate Blanchett doesn’t play a morbid, deeply disturbed Blanche the way Vivien Leigh did (Leigh, of course, knew something of what she was acting). But I don’t think Blanchett, ultimately, sees the character as a mental case at the start (lost, in severe pain, yes, but holding on). Instead, the director and star are examining and most interested in the non-melodramatic elements. Blanchett–along with Ullmann, who has a deep understanding of Ibsen–seems to see Blanche as double-crossed by society in much the same way as Hedda Gabler has been.  But Strindberg’s Miss Julie and The Father must have been important influences to Williams, too—for in Streetcar we also see the loss of social position, the shame, and, of course, the trajectory into the asylum. Elia Kazan–it was no secret–never really liked Blanche and weighted his original productions of the play and movie in favor of Marlon Brando.  Joel Edgerton has been pumping the iron for the big part—and Ullmann isn’t afraid to let us see his nonfrontal nudity. But showing us Stanley’s menace isn’t what this production is after—instead, Ullmann places the emphasis on Blanche's inability to conform and her fall from grace. Ullmann, of course, is linked to another Scandinavian genius—one that Hollywood did not want her to promote too heavily as she was given material unsuited for her during a short-lived career as a Hollywood star (she would have presented the Oscar in 1972 to Marlon Brando for The Godfather, actually, had he not chosen a young Native American woman named Little Feather to accept for him instead).  But aside from a similarly very clear dissection of the work at hand—one that only reasserts what a masterpiece A Streetcar Named Desire is—I think this is the first time where discussing Bergman’s work in connection to Ullmann’s is unnecessary. 

© 2009 by Bob Shuman

A Streetcar Named Desire

Nov 27—Dec 20*

By Tennessee Williams
Sydney Theatre Company
Directed By Liv Ullmann

"…how often do you get to watch an actress of such virtuosity pulling out every stop of her instrument and then some?" —The New York Times on Cate Blanchett

Tennessee Williams has a way with his women. Both sympathetic and merciless, he cuts to their core, revealing their longing, vulnerability, and pride. His most poignant creation—and the dream role of every leading actress—may be the narcissistic and deeply troubled Blanche DuBois of A Streetcar Named Desire.

An aging Southern beauty, Blanche is all artifice, pomposity, and need, traits that Cate Blanchett, a transcendent performer (who made her New York stage debut at BAM in 2006 as an unforgettable Hedda Gabler), conveys with the most delicate balance of hysteria and pathos. Playing off of Joel Edgerton as the remorseless monster Stanley, and Robin McLeavy, as her conflicted sister Stella, Blanchett and the outstanding ensemble cast of the Sydney Theatre Company bring new life to this celebrated work.

Liv Ullmann—whose own soul-baring performances in the films of Ingmar Bergman defined an era—directs, granting Williams' fraught characters a full spectrum of emotions while witnessing the old South's losing battle against a coarse modern world.

BAM Harvey Theater
190min with intermission
Tickets: Tue—Thu: $30, 65, 95; Fri—Sun: $40, 80, 120

Set design by Ralph Myers
Costume design by Tess Schofield
Lighting design by Nick Schlieper
Sound design by Paul Charlier

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