Arts Desk

Critical Mass: Why the Cate Blanchett Streetcar Sucks (Or Doesn’t)

In this week's review of 'A Streetcar Named Desire,' I mentioned "a colleague" with a different take on the show — and invited him to take our difference of opinion (via e-mail) to the blog. Here's how that worked out:

Bob Mondello: Okay, I'll take the bait, though you've hedged your phrasing enough that finding solid ground from which to mount a dissent is tricky. Let's start with a point on which we agree: I can entirely subscribe to "not a perfect reading…[but] one of the clearest I've seen," if by "clearest" you mean "least subtle." Blanchett's Blanche is gorgeous when first revealed at the right edge of the proscenium arch — a ghostly vision in white, stock-still with her suitcase — but by the time she's trembled her way across the stage to enter her sister's apartment she's not just out of her element, but all too evidently bat-shit crazy. And the problem (the Post critic's argument notwithstanding) with Blanche being bat-shit crazy in the first three minutes of Streetcar is that there's still three hours and twelve minutes to go. Blanchett gets bigger with the tremors (my seatmate wondered at one point whether the character had Parkinson's), and Ullmann's staging gives her ever-grander gestures when she's posturing about her station in life, but there's really nowhere for her to go.

Trey: Oh, come now. If I meant "unsubtle," I'd have said it. (Oh, wait, I did, but only when I was characterizing your position. ) What you see as "all too evidently bat-shit crazy," I saw as a woman playing an alcoholic negotiating a dicey neighborhood after a long trip from rural Mississippi to the French Quarter. (A hundred and forty-one miles, in case you're wondering.) She's essentially been run out of her hometown; I'd guess she's come by train (we learn later that the bus is beneath her); we know she's had to take two different streetcars, and we know she doesn't have any cash. And the first thing she reaches for, once she's in the apartment, is the booze. She's an emotional wreck in a strange place, and she's at best hung over, at worst suffering from the DT's. I don't see how shaky and easily startled is a bad choice here. We'd believe a horse might shy in such a circumstance, and Blanche is nothing if not a thoroughbred.

Bob: Hmmmm…hadn't considered your geographic advantage as a Southern boy – 141 miles…bus versus train, oy – still, it would've been nice to let us discover the character, rather than telegraphing the whole first act before she's uttered six lines. And that's just the start of the overkill. Ullmann seems to think we need things explained to the max, possibly because the play's not burned into her Norweigian (and Blanchett's Australian) consciousness the way it is into American theatergoers'. I don't think the production is terrible (though I sure don't get some bits, like the "Flores para los muertos" lady taking a 10-minute nap on the fire escape) but I do think it's clumsy at times. I don't understand why Mitch is allowed to steal focus by sobbing hysterically through a scene where the whole point is Blanche depending on the kindness of strangers, for instance. Think maybe he's trying to get himself carted off to the asylum too?

Trey: Hey, I'm not here to defend Mitch. I thought that was weird, too. One outburst, maybe, but then shut up and sniffle in the corner, dude. But as for the flower-lady: Don't you think Ullmann is reading that bit as a metaphor? That maybe (like the Varsouviana tune) the vendor is only there in Blanche's head? Not how it's written, of course, but it's kosher to take liberties with the classics. And that moment has always been where Blanche's terror of death and decay peaks, and when her last reserves fail. (Alternatively: The woman is a vendor, after all, and the fire escape isn't a bad position to take up. It seems to be a busy corner, in this production.) I'll tell you one moment you probably thought was over-the-top, but that I liked: the business with Blanche breaking away from the doctor and walking into the light. I like that she's explicitly choosing her exit, not going quietly along. (No, I don't think it's being telegraphed: I think plenty of audiences don't understand that Blanche has an option aside from passivity and surrender.) And I don't think she's insane, either; I think she's exhausted and broken and finally, finally done with pretending that the airs and graces matter. That's why I thought it was amazing that she goes out dressed as she does; some people have talked about that costuming/staging choice being completely wackdoodle, but I loved it.

Bob: A vendor!?! Very creative. Let her nap in the wings. And yes, I thought the ending with Blanche's anaconda grip on the doctor's arm, followed by a letting go and drifting away, was over the top. I mean, the production's hardly been realistic throughout (that record player they keep playing on the bed would need a gyroscope to keep from skipping as they bounce around on the mattress) but literal etherealness seemed a bit much. I wasn't moved by it, and I've been moved in the past – both relatively recently (in Arena's behind-the-iron-curtain staging) and in the nearly prehistoric era (to play the age card since you played the geographic one). When Lois Nettleton played the KenCen, just a week after closing a 1973 revival on Broadway, the whole audience was sobbing at the curtain. I barely heard sniffles at this one.

Trey: Well, at least there was the one guy sniffling. I suppose I'll be a good Southern boy and defer to your advanced age, but I gotta say I never thought I'd be trying to convince you that the Post and I got closer to the mark than you and The Washington Times.

Bob: Ooooh, seriously below the belt. And me, sweetly depending on the kindness of friends, too. Ah well. Someday we must chat about Patrick Stewart’s take on the last scene in Othello.

Blog Widget by LinkWithin
  • Jason Cherkis

    This is awesome. I love the back and forth from two very smart critics. I hope more debates are on the way.

  • Shirley

    This is great, and really helps people understand that reviews simply aren't an objective art (of course they aren't, because reviewers are human beings with feelings and experiences all their own)--but I don't know that audiences always get that. Thanks for letting us inside of your heads. Would love to see more.

  • callie kimball

    You two are hilarious.

    Now I'm not so sorry that the run is sold out at BAM.

  • Jessica

    Interesting debate. I have yet to see this production and am unable to contribute my own opinions just yet(will see a couple of the New York performances), but my colleague, who is also a theatre director and has directed a couple of productions of this play himself not to mention has seen it staged many times, told me he was perplexed by Ullmann's & Blanchett's choices but felt they fit within in the fabric of their interpretation and the goal of what they wanted to achieve. He loved it and thought it was very powerful. I was, however, priveledged to attend the conversation with Blanchett and Emily Mann also remarked on the unique but ingenuitive exploration of the material. She explained how it moved her to tears by the end and then proceeded to inform us that she is not who cries easily. Who knows what I'll think, but judging from these two very experienced individuals involved in theatre my thoughts will more than likely be more aligned to theirs. Also, I feel theatre (and this is also what Cate touched upon) is a medium in which liberties are embraced and even if the directors and actors experiment with a different mood of the piece or a distinguishably disparate take on a scene that it should be critiqued on how it's executed according to the goals of the director, not how literal or not literal they performed the material. Theatre is meant to be performed differently, otherwise we receive a monochromatic production and there's no room for breath or originality.

  • Jessica

    oops...apologies for my shameful neglect to spell-check before posting. "privileged" is a word that proves to be a bane of my writing prowess.

  • Trey Graham

    Heh. Bob has lobbed one last volley, now that he's back from his afternoon movie screening. In case you're wondering, there's a backstory about how much I enjoyed Patrick Stewart's Othello at the Shakespeare Theatre back in 1997. I enjoyed it so much that for what I'm pretty sure is the only time in my entire career, I left at intermission.

  • Chris Klimek

    Don't mind me, Gentlemen. I'm just eavesdropping over here. If you made this a regular feature of the blog, I'd never miss an installment.

    On the whole, I think Trey's assessment of the show as "clear" is accurate, and I don't believe the production suffered for a want of subtlety. What are we deprived of if we're shown how frail Blanche is from the opening moments? Admittedly, it shifts our sympathies towards her right away, but that's legit choice, I think.

    I was expecting the Ullman-Blanchett collaboration to produce a less conventional take. Though I felt completely invested the entire time, nothing specific happened that surprised me until the final scene. (I'll cop to having overlooked the significance of the flower-lady entirely.) Maybe the fact that Ullman and Blanchett are coming from other theatrical traditions made them more reluctant to muck around with an American classic than they might've been.

    So, you guys were sympatico in your reaction to Joel Edgerton's Stanley, then?

  • Jon Palmer Claridge

    Sorry, score one for Mondello. That balances his misunderstanding of Amadeus at Olney some years back. . .

  • Glen Weldon

    Late to the party, and haven't seen the show, but just wanted to note that I'm glad y'all get a chance to see what my inbox looks like every week.

    Isn't it kind of awesome when Mom and Dad fight?

  • Todd Metrokin

    Wonderful format, you should do it more often! Not having seen it, I can't comment on the performance in question but Bob's last comment on appreciating the Arena staging... what?? I've never been so close to walking out of a play. And that includes a Junior High performance of Happy Days.

  • Trey Graham

    @Todd: Funny you should mention. Last week, I wound up having the conversation above about *that* production. I was at dinner with a woman who runs a foundation that gives big bucks to a bunch of D.C. theaters, and she cited that production as one of a handful that made her quit going to Arena entirely.

    I have to confess, I kinda loved it. It was weird, granted, and it didn't entirely work. But I thought it was cool that the director -- who apparently really *was* one of those Euro types who don't know the play at all -- nevertheless understood that under all that frou-frou, Blanche is kind of a bully. Understood it, and made it the organizing principle of the production.

    Now: How do we know the director really, truly didn't get the play, at least at first? Because we hear that in an early rehearsal, the Mad Hungarian waved a disdainful hand and said: "What is this 'kindness of strangers' business? We cut that!"

  • Trey Graham

    @ Glen: Don't make me send you to bed without supper.

  • Jay

    I appreciate seeing back and forth between critics, except that one (the one who isn't South-ren) is so much superior just by being mediorcre.