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David Finkle

David Finkle

Posted: December 8, 2009 04:31 PM

Blanchett as Blanche in Tennessee Williams's Streetcar Named Desire

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As the famous -- not to say infamous -- Blanche DuBois and directed by Liv Ullmann in a harsh Scenes From a Marriage frame of mind, Cate Blanchett pulls out all stops throughout Tennessee Wiliams's supernal tragedy, A Streetcar Named Desire, now at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In a Sydney Theatre Company performance already on its way to icon status and threatening to force Vivien Leigh into some pedestal-sharing, Blanchett with her slash-of-a-mouth, high-cheek-boned blond beauty is the very definition of mercurial.

Although Williams held the image of a moth in his head when writing the play during those preparatory years -- and had The Moth as a preliminary title and even likens Blanche to a moth in an early stage direction -- he also has Blanche regard herself as a butterfly. In float-y summer dresses designed by Tess Schofield, Blanchett is a butterfly, all right.

But much of the time, she's an iron butterfly, her gossamer wings threaded with inflexible metal. One of the most mendacious of Williams's characters -- and the playwright, who died gagging on the truth of a plastic bottle cap in 1983, was a mendacity expert -- this lyrical-with-heavy-ballast Blanche relies on lying as the most potent weapon she has to make people with whom she consorts submit to her whims even as she's in heavy denial about the dire straits into which she's descended. Her insistence that "a woman's charm is fifty percent illusion" and "I don't tell truth -- I tell what ought to be truth" are the acknowledgments of her desperate modus operandi.

Blanche is decidedly on her uppers when she arrives for an open-ended stay with sister Stella (Robin McLeavy) at a dingy two-room apartment in the ironically and symbolically named Elysian Fields complex. She's recently lost the family home, Belle Reve, in another ironic and symbolic expression of squelched dreams and is hoping to save herself through her unflagging determination to ignore reality.

To convey Blanche's ignominy, Blanchett runs unflinchingly through a treacherous gamut of emotions. And isn't it interesting that the name Blanchett contains the name Blanche, as if the actress was born to play the role, as if she arrived fully equipped to embody Williams's most famous heroine? But maybe Blanchett is too ready, because pulling all those stops out to create this Blanche may mean she's pulled out a few too many.

By the end of the tragedy, when Blanche is carted off to an asylum -- and thankful she's once again the recipient of "the kindness of strangers" -- Blanchett is in such disarray (her mouth smeared with lipstick in a cliché of female madness), there's the sense that Blanchett and Ullmann have driven Blanche this far around the bend not so much as a response to the merciless text as in recognition of a handy opportunity to exhibit an actor's wide range.

Indeed, Ullmann is so intent on showing Blanche's final liberation into insanity that she eliminates the play's devastating final line -- "This game is seven-card stud" -- with its thudding last word. "Stud" is a not-so-veiled reference, of course, to the stud who serves as catalyst for Blanche's inevitable undoing, Stella's blue-collar husband, Stanley Kowalski (Joel Edgerton).

Like so many great pieces of theater, the gorgeously and perceptively titled Streetcar Named Desire (with its mundane-poetic juxtaposition, see also the title Camino Real) is about the inevitable trumping of illusion by truth. Whereas Blanche can't stop herself from telling falsehoods of every stripe, Stanley -- brutally unforgiving as he is -- only speaks what irrefutably is. He's hard as pumped biceps because the truth we're all eventually required to face is often as catastrophic as the rape he executes.

Edgerton's Stanley has those biceps and the six-pack physique to go with them. (He also has six-packs of beer at the ready.) Moreover, Edgerton has an intuitive understanding of Stanley and puts it to the kind of natural behavior that does what too few Stanleys do: blur the stamp Marlon Brando put on the role. It's as if Edgerton and Ullmann implicitly realize he has to portray the Stanley that Williams wrote, not the Stanley Brando played.

The rest of Ullmann's production is also a relatively fresh and generally successful treatment of the familiar heart-breaker. The Kowalskis' squalid home -- though underneath another apartment reached by metal stairs -- has nothing of the faded Elysium about it. Based, according to set designer Ralph Myers. on Edward Hopper paintings, it pointedly lacks the warming sun that softens Hopper's daytime scenes. Instead lighting designer Nick Schlieper's bare bulbs -- those objects analogous to cold reality -- seem the only illuminating force.

Under them, the entire company -- most notably McLeavy as a tender-tough Stella and Tim Richards as unpolished but compassionate gentleman-caller Mitch -- vivify a revival that works to remind anyone who's forgotten that here's one of the handful of preeminent 20-century American plays.