BWW Reviews: Psych Drama Company and RI Shakespeare Company Present A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE
Some would say that it's the journey that's most important, rather than the destination. Others will argue that it's the destination that matters, no matter how one arrives there. In theater, plays are often concerned with a character's journey, where they have been, where they are headed, why they're going in that direction and, finally, where they actually end up. The current production of A Streetcar Named Desire, jointly presented by Psych Drama Company and Rhode Island Shakespeare Company, is an example of what happens when the journey is secondary, even ignored, and how that can diminish a play's power.
A Streetcar Named Desire is the famous Tennessee Williams play which revolves around the one-time southern belle Blanche Dubois. After suffering a series of tragic events, she arrives at the doorstep of her sister Stella, who lives in a rundown neighborhood of New Orleans. Blanche blows in like a gentle southern breeze but quickly comes into conflict with Stella's husband, Stanley. While Blanche attempts to maintain an air of refinement, Stanley is anything but refined and his brutish, animalistic and often violent ways clash with Blanche from the moment they meet until the play's perhaps inevitable climax.
This reviewer's biggest takeaway from the production was the portrayal of Blanche and how, from the very start, it removed her character's journey entirely. In this case, the very moment Blanche arrives on the scene, she is already acting like a raving lunatic, a wild-eyed madwoman about to completely lose it. Having Blanche go from zero to crazy in less than sixty seconds leaves the audience in the dust. It also does them a disservice. They are robbed of a major part of the play's central tension and drama, that which comes from watching Blanche's slow descent into madness. If, at first, Blanche is portrayed as pretending to be a pure, fragile flower, then the audience gets to watch as the petals slowly fall away, one by one, until the dark, rotting roots are exposed.
Unfortunately, in this case, the roots are exposed immediately, the petals are long gone and there's no mystery about how broken Blanche is. We don't get to watch her slowly approach the edge of sanity and fall off the cliff, because she's already gone over it and plummeted into insanity, before the play even got started. There's nowhere else for her to go, she never really gets better or worse, it's all just the same. She starts out crazy and ends crazy, with little change in between, and the climax is mostly anti-climactic. At best, this can make Blanche's story frustrating and at worst, downright boring. It's up to each audience member to decide on their own which one they have experienced.
Also likely to split audience members is the acting by Wendy Lippe in the role of Blanche. To her credit, she makes a big choice and seriously commits to it, and that should be applauded. Some will find it a brilliant performance that works perfectly while others will find it a less-than-brilliant performance that, in the end, diminishes the character and story. I find myself in the latter group.
Lippe is a clinical psychologist and the Producing Artistic Director of Psych Drama Company, whose mission is "to promote reflection and psychological insight through the mechanism of live theatre." In this case, though, the focus on psychology may be to the detriment of the character and the story that Tennessee Williams wrote. What I mean is, Lippe seems so concerned with playing the psychology, the state of being, of Blanche, that she forgets to make Blanche a real, believable human being.
Playing a state of being is always problematic for an actor. Those moments when an actor simply says, "I'm being depressed" or "I'm being greedy" or "I'm being promiscuous" seldom work on stage. Acting must be active and it must be about playing an action, one which is motivated by something, an objective, desire, need or goal. Lippe proves this herself during one excellent scene between her and Jon Brandl as Mitch, Stanley's friend with whom Blanche hopes to start a romance. During the scene, Lippe seems to finally be playing the action, the objective-or-goal-driven action, rather than just playing a state of being. It really works but those kinds of moments are few and far between. Most of her moments on stage are so unmotivated and over the top they border on parody or satire, rather than believability. There are many things that just don't make sense or seem to have no reason or motivation. Her constant shaking, twitching and other mannerisms are distracting and unnecessary, they don't help deepen the character or tell the story. She seems to have real acting talent but it appears to take a backseat to hammering the audience over the head with her character's psychological state.