Friday, May 10, 2019


“A Blanche Named Russell Peck” ****

by Aron Canter (guest reviewer)

From time to time Theatre's Leiter Side will be posting reviews of Off-Off Broadway shows my schedule prevents me from seeing. If you are interested in reviewing Off-Off Broadway, please contact me so we can discuss. I hope you find the expanded coverage useful. Sam Leiter 
Russell Peck, Max Carpenter. Photo: Rosie Soko.

Few plays in the American canon are as well-known as Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, and few renditions of American characters are as well-known as the film performances by Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando’s of Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski. As such, revivals are in danger of “doing” Leigh and Brando, rather than discovering the characters freshly. Such is absolutely not the case here. Director Kevin Hourigan’s Streetcar makes impressive, honest choices that reveal new colors in the classic script.           

The production distinguishes itself through its unique portrait of Blanche. Instead of the hysteric we frequently see, she comes off here as a practical woman broken down by the sorry and painful conditions of her life. Streetcar is the story of Blanche DuBois, a relic of the Old South, who travels to New Orleans, in the damp heart of the New South, to live with her sister, Stella, and her sister’s working-class husband, Stanley.

The themes are deeply American and poetic: the changing economic landscape, the exploded social landscape, and the relationship between desire and death. In the play, Blanche and Stanley become antagonistic, as they represent two extremely different versions of the South that cannot coexist. Violence, both physical and psychological, ensues. The play ends with Stanley violently assaulting Blanche, followed by her removal to an asylum.
Isabel Ellison, Russell Peck, Max Carpenter. Photo: Rosie Soko.
Williams’s major themes are intact, but additional ones, with contemporary relevance, shine through. The production fashions Blanche as a secure woman, with none of the victim-blaming often accredited to the script. This characterization has ripple effects through every other character and the unfolding events. The result is an effective portrayal of a person sincerely trying to take steps to get her life together, and trying to save her sister from an abusive relationship.
Max Carpenter, Isabel Ellison, Russell Peck. Photo: Rosie Soko.
While the element of spousal abuse is always present, Hourigan and his crew make it more central and apparent. Blanche is responsible so, when she reproaches Stanley, there is no latent desire and class-cruelty. No longer the unreliable hysteric, she seems to make decisions based on a cost-benefit analysis, seeing Stanley as dangerous. When they talk, she isn’t teasing and tempting an animal, but trying to tame one.

As portrayed by Mx. Russell Peck, the first genderqueer actor the Williams estate has granted the rights to play the role—a point lightly noted toward the end—Blanche doesn’t seem like a liar. Her untruths and misdirections are central to the character, so this choice is significant. When Blanche speaks the famous line, “I don’t want realism, I want magic . . . I don’t tell the truth, I tell what ought to be the truth,” it feels logical and justified, a fair and oddly healthy response to the circumstances. Blanche is not clinging to an aristocratic past, but doing her best to navigate an unsteady future with charm, poise, and dignity, the only avenues to healthy growth.
Performed at Mister Rogers in Crown Heights, the production is staged on a minimal but realistic set, designed by Choul Lee, and performed between two single rows of folding chairs on either side of the performance space. Matthew Webb’s lighting design fits well with the desired realism, creating an effective atmosphere for some of the more poetic encounters. Nancy Peck’s costumes are lovely, with some lovely accent dresses. A live piano, played by Tony Macht, who also acts in the play, helps to evoke the mood.
Hourigan does an impressive job marshaling the drama across the performance space. He often has action moving in opposite directions, creating dynamism that helps justify the violent encounters. The actors have the freedom to naturally wind their way around the Kowalski apartment, and the organization of the space and performers contributes to the clear storytelling and the relaxed New Orleans atmosphere. The production features explicit violence which, while extreme, is handled appropriately.

Stella, performed by Isabel Ellison, is particularly impressive. She shoulders her burden--to care for Blanche and handle Stanley—with a sense of leadership I formerly had not seen in the character. She swims through her character, as if savoring every bit of moisture pressing against her skin. Stanley, performed by Max Carpenter, glistens, offering an element of forethought that makes his violence all the more disturbing. David J. Cork’s Mitch has all of the sincerity and sweetness we’ve come to expect in the character but none of the “ah-shucks” attitude often found.
In any classic’s remounting, I hope to be told the familiar story with new and telling touches. This revival satisfies that hope.

Mister Rogers
231 Rogers Ave, Brooklyn
Through May 25

Aron Canter studied theatre theory and alternative performance at The New School and is working toward an Art History masters at Hunter College. He has been a theatre and art critic, a supernumerary at The Metropolitan Opera, and currently works as a medical professional.