Saturday, March 26, 2011

*A Streetcar Named Desire* at Gonzaga: a review

Posted on Sat, Mar 26, 2011 at 4:39 PM

at Gonzaga's Magnuson Theater, Sat 7:30 pm, closes Sun 2 pm

Today marks exactly a century since Tennessee Williams was born. Streetcar, arguably his greatest play, is one of those works that you think you know fully — until reacquaintance reveals new facets. In the central and monumental role of Blanche DuBois, Katie Haster delivers a nuanced performance that repays close attention.  

At nearly three hours, director Brian Russo's production is a long but worthwhile and engaging sit. Haster fills it with Blanche's insecurity, desperation and determination. With fluttering fingers, head tilts of disdain, her hands pressed together at odd angles, Haster makes Blanche's self-dramatizing self-conscious -- that is, she's aware of how desperate her circumstances are and how she has to play-act to create certain effects and get her way. Flirtatious, dreamy, angry, haughty, disoriented, hysterical, sad — Haster rings nearly all the changes in Blanche's character. It's a performance that's muddled in its opening moments -- too exaggerated, poorly enunciated, accent wavering -- but it recovers so well that, hours later, you realize that Haster hasn't just been repeating herself. After all, it'd be easy to recycle those fluttery hands over and over. But Haster uses the downward-tilting chin with big beagle eyes, the hands flying to the throat and then tossing her hair, judiciously. She even finds a way to play the coquette with her perfume spritzer, putting it down when Stanley calls her on being too flirtatious. But she's not just a fading rose -- she duels with Stanley face-to-face over the legal papers, and later,with her suitor Mitch, she even finds romance in a cigarette case.

In the direct-address reminiscence speeches, Haster's sad, upturned eyes evoke the romance she once enjoyed before the harsh light of reality -- her own impracticality and flightiness --defeated her; Russo inserts snippets of faraway music, as in Williams' script, to evoke the kind of memories that make life worth living in retrospect but do nothing to get us through the problems we face today. Haster's Blanche gets a little annoying and tiresome at times, which is good -- it's in this belle's character. Denied another drink, she sucks on the the tip of her thumb, self-consoling like a baby with a pacifier. She's creepy and seductive in the coming-on-to-the-newsboy scene (well acted by Gregory Talbott), but then turns right around and plays the prude with the overawed Mitch: First you want to strangle her, then you realize just how pathetically insecure she really is. Haster's Blanche is a muddled nymphomaniac, looking for love with all the wrong men and getting so little of it that it finally side-swipes her mind.

Some of the scene-ending lines are rushed over -- in particular, Blanche's gratitude for Mitch's gallantry and love, "sometimes it's God so quickly," doesn't get enough weight -- but Haster turns in a performance that any 20-something playing a 30-something could be proud of.

As Stella, Mary Davies provides enough push-back against Stanley to make her own impression. For the early revelation that Belle Reve has been lost, Russo positions the two sisters on opposite sides of the kitchen table, enphasizing their cross-purposes.

Andrew Garcia is too tall and skinny to appear subhuman and brutish, as the role of Stanley demands, but he has surprising physical power (tossing poker players to the ground) and vocal force (as in the famous "Stella!" bellow, which here leads to a lovely moment with Mary Davies posed at the top of the stairs,bathed in light just before she falls into his arms and we see that, for all his brutishness, Stanley has won over at least one woman with animal magnetism). And Garcia, more than many Stanleys, displays the man's insecurity at being Polish, working-class, unrefined.

As Mitch, Connor Brenes stands with hands folded over his crotch, ever the proper suitor, self-conscious about his beefiness and perspiration; he creates the proper contrast to the other drunken, crotch-scratching poker players, including Stanley.

Deanna L. Zibello's set, with its faded wallpaper and exposed wooden slats, suggests post-war penury while adding a semi-abstract and colorful suggestion of all the jazzy nightlife that lies just outside the walls of the Kowalskis' French Quarter apartment. Inside those two rooms, it's cramped and stifling hot.

With Haster's performance, though, it's a place you're willing to stay.

[ photo: Andrew Garcia as Stanley Kowalski and Katie Haster as Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Brian C. Russo at Gonzaga University, March 2011 ]

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