Sangare brings magic to ‘Streetcar’ realism

“I don’t want realism, I want magic!” Following the advice of his main character, Blanche DuBois, magic is what Tennessee Williams gives us in A Streetcar Named Desire. For the uninitiated such as this writer, the play is a sinister chronicle of a woman’s descent into insanity, as the intricate, fanciful veil that she has tossed over the despair and tragedy of reality is slowly torn asunder by the inexorable violence of the world she finds herself in. Blanche has become an archetype of the dreamer who, in the face of tragedy, has wrapped herself so tightly in the fabric of her imagination that she cannot bear the sight of the truth.
For three consecutive nights, the ’62 Center put on this American classic for sold-out shows in the Adams Memorial Theatre. Professor Omar Sangare of the theatre department was at the directorial helm, while a troupe of almost exclusively students held the roles. Sangare explicitly stated his primary intention: “to focus on both the frightening and the exhilarating possibilities of the imagination.” And that is precisely what this adaptation provided: an insight, not into a string of events, but into the mind of Blanche’s wild delusions.
The first and boldest choice he made was to duplicate all of the actions, giving them all a part and a counterpart. In short, all of the roles, save for Blanche, were played by two sets of actors, who produced two versions of every dialogue (or almost). Sometimes, these two iterations followed each other, yielding two polar opposites of each character and situation; yet at times two actors, playing the same character, would confront Blanche at once, which created an astonishing, anarchic effect. With Blanche as the only fixed variable and all around her constantly swirling about in a frenetic chaos, we slowly shed our confusion and understood this structure to be a tangible manifestation of her constant struggle with reality, between her romantic illusions and the inevitable truth.
In addition to this quite brilliant innovation, there were other mechanisms that exacerbated this dizzying effect. The décor on the stage appeared and disappeared of its own volition, sliding in and out of view (on disguised rails, it would seem), removing the necessity of scene transitions. Thanks to this, Sangare obliterated time, making the entire play a continuous event in which days, weeks, sometimes months passed without warning; again, the audience was pushed inside of Blanche’s world, in which time slowly disintegrated until it meant very little. Color also played a role: All but Blanche were clothed in muted grays and browns, fading into the set of the same tones. She, on the other hand, was dressed in silky white gowns, deep red velvet capes or colorful floral dresses which set her apart from the rabble, mirroring her emotional detachment from those around her by showing it all through a muted, sepia lens.
Williams had already used noise and music to affect the atmosphere on the stage: His script has the rare particularity of indicating sounds, such as a car passing or a song playing, which ought to be reproduced behind the scenes at key moments. Sangare took this a step further by adding a soundtrack playing over all of the action; it went from unintelligible fragments of sound, to occasional music, to a sort of radio static, incessant and relentless, which weighed heavy over the goings-on. Again, this translated Blanche’s perception of the events, during which her incessant torment would never leave her side.
Overall the cast was strong: Andrew Dominitz ’11 and Nathaniel Basch-Gould ’11 portrayed a sensational Stanley Kowalski, the primal, ruthlessly real antithesis to Blanche’s fantasies of grandeur. Her sister, Stella Kowalski, was convincingly brought to life by Holly Crane ’12 and Margy Love ’12, who illustrated her paradox very sophisticatedly: She is torn between her affection for her sister and the savage potency of her husband, which subdues her completely. Mike Leon ’11 and Frank Pagliaro ’14 played Harold Mitchell, Blanche’s would-be suitor, and in addition to a very strong performance, brought a delightful touch of humor to the table. However, the performance which should have anchored the play as a focal point, that of Blanche, was disappointing. When it came to framing her persona, Tess McHugh ’11 did a satisfactory job; she depicted well the fading southern belle and conveyed Blanche’s self-aware sophistication in the midst of vulgarity. On the other hand, the harsh, tremulous tone she used to voice her character’s fragile, deteriorating mental state, in addition to her fixed, detached stare and nervous jitters, instead of serving as occasional symptoms of despair, were deployed throughout. All of her dialogue was delivered in this shrill, almost intolerable pitch, and her unwavering consistency of both voice and gesture came across as wooden and unpleasant.
This flaw did not, however, detract from the innovation Sangare and his team brought to this classic: It was clever, surprising and very well thought-out, lending a new layer of meaning to a text which has been adapted countless times. It is a testament, no doubt, to Williams’ ability to capture nuance and complexity in a work that has stayed fresh and relevant.