A Triumph in Calculated Loss
By the time the bold prologue had finished – the story of Blanche DuBois’ marriage, her husband’s suicide, and the gradual death and dissolution of everything associated with Belle Reve, her Laurel, Mississippi estate, something Tennessee Williams fans are usually asked to imagine or guess for themselves – I was straining to hear a human voice. The most amazing thing about Scottish Ballet’s interpretation of A Streetcar Named Desire might be just this: the choice to sacrifice Tennessee Williams’ dialogue, and to tell the story (both more and less “story” than most interpretations take on) with nothing but bodies in motion.
Even audiences just as accustomed to dance as to drama found themselves aching for a human voice through most this production, but this feeling was only a footnote to our encompassing awe at director Nancy Meckler’s and choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s gamble, really a calculated loss, to sacrifice the author’s words to more freely interpret his spirit. And it is a loss – imagine a soft-shoed Hamlet throwing himself around the stage while we wait for him to voice his question But by leaving our ears to atrophy Meckler and Ochoa demand our eyes’ complete dedication, and when they’ve released us from our straining after just over two hours rapt on the expressive control of the Scottish Ballet’s dancers, their calculated loss has paid off.
. . .
I made my first trip to Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre, an abrupt glass building erupting out of Nicholson Street’s Victorian stone, a week ago, to see the inimitable Stewart Lee (and inimitability is the salient quality of his highly stylized comedy). But the last ballet I’d seen must have been an under-18 Nutcracker circa 1999 – so when I bought my ticket to Streetcar I was ready for anything.
Though I was familiar with the play. I’d last seen a production of Streetcar in 2012, at the The Adam Mickiewicz Library and Dramatic Circle on Buffalo’s East Side. This was a stunningly intimate performance from Torn Space. Couched in a house standing alone in one of the more barren blocks of the East Side, the Adam Mickiewicz venue houses a theatre about the size of a large living room; but to get to this one must proceed through a still-domestic feeling front hall, a tight billiard room/library, and a red-lit, all-wood bar, where an old Pole doles out Tyskies and other Euro beers. The stage that night bore as few props as the director deemed possible, and the whole thing was boxed-in by a spare thin metal frame, enclosing the actors while underscoring the absence of any cushion for them, and also permitting some bold choices: the director used haunting sound loops and close-up shots of raw fetid meat projected behind the action, distracting sometimes, but serving well to reveal – not directly but at an exaggerated, oblique angle – something about Blanche’s internal reality, her mental decomposition.
I expected obvious contrasts between this memory of a Streetcar at once stripped-down and daringly experimental and a big-budget interpretation from the Scottish Ballet. The biggest challenge as well as the greatest opportunity for interpretive license would lie, even more for the Scottish Ballet as for other groups trying to make Williams’ play “new,” in manifesting Blanche’s mind onstage.
If the Scottish Ballet proved anything this past week, it was that the form lends itself brilliantly to this sort of drama. Blanche (played by principal dancer Eve Musto) here becomes a multiplicity: she is not one dancer onstage but a whole company – ghosts, half-ghosts, a score of black-dressed dancers with roses for mouths – and we watch as she calls on other bodies, parts of herself, to manifest the internal reality she battles, always under the 28 bare bulbs that hang above the stage. Increasingly her fantasies mix not only with reality but with one another, her (fond, if delusional) memory of working as a feather-boaed prostitute pouring into a darker memory of her wedding and her husband’s suicide.
One bold choice was inclusion of the “prologue,” though Meckler might not use that term. This version explains Blanche’s trauma through the death of her husband, who was torn between his wife and a man – something Williams; script reveals, secondhand, much later. (This presented a minor problem – the dancer could convince us that he loved the man, but not that he loved Blanche, though it was clear that he was meant to. This left us too consciously suspending our disbelief when he killed himself.)
But the dancer was convincing enough as a ghost: his body, shirt bloodied, appears to blend in with Blanche’s reality as she leaves Belle Reve, progresses through a stint as a prostitute and eventually joins her sister Stella and her new husband Stanley Kowalski in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Ochoa introduces him in one excellent scene to meld with a burlesque show, just as arranger Peter Salem inflects the bar’s period-jazz with the discordant melody of Blanche’s wedding theme; as her husband appears among the tutued dancers on the bar, a dark ghost-version of Blanche proffers the black tie we earlier saw her put around his neck.
Ochoa put her dancers to work as stage hands, using them at once to menace Blanche or bustle about Stanley and Stella while arranging and breaking versatile sets constructed entirely out of beer crates.
Sometimes watching drama adapted into dance is like watching a couple fight through the window looking into their apartment. The show is mute, we feel our distance more acutely and inescapably than in traditional drama – but we cannot look away.
Other times – many times, during Streetcar – the choreography is so natural, so expressive hate and frailty and wild unstill spectrums of sexuality that we think it must have been improvised, the dancers possessed in some enthusiasmos and ecstasis, channeling the old gods’ emotions which human feeling is based upon.
After one intense hour, the curtain goes down on Stella and Stanley, she nursing her husband’s head against her chest – while shattered Blanche sits, looking nowhere, unlit, atop a Brechtian tower of beer crates.
. . .
(If Prosecco was the rule before the doors opened, £3 cups of Mackie’s ice cream are the treat of choice during intermission. But even these delicious flavors – Honeycomb, Chocolate Mint, Chocolate, Strawberry – offer no real emotional break. Ahead of me in row D a uni-aged girl reads aloud from a melodramatic Tumblr page. Beside me, one middle-aged woman reads to another, also from her smartphone, an article entitled “My boyfriend killed himself because…” The lights dim. More than anything, we are relieved.)
. . .
Act One ends with the production’s only line of dialogue. You can guess it; during the duration of the first act’s silence, I kept wondering, Will he say it? How can he not say it?
But when it comes – when Tama Barry’s Stanley breaks briefly through the ballet’s nonverbal aesthetic – the result is underwhelming. Thrice he gives his cri de coeur, and each time we think, Maybe he’s building. Maybe the next one will be the “Stella.”
Perhaps this was a fluke of Saturday’s matinee performance, but I took it as emblematic of the production’s one salient flaw. The Meckler-Ochoa rewrite irons out the nuances in Stanley, making him into the animal brute that, in other productions – that in Williams’ script – Blanche only imagines him to be. There’s also a trade-off in developing Blanche’s character: Meckler and Ochoa give her backstory, showing us how she falls into the condition in which she appears on her sister’s doorstep, but they erase or play down her elaborate airs, deemphasizing her delusions of a ladylike history and persona and making her insistence on being treated as a Southern Belle into something coming – certainly not the demanding persistent madness that, in other productions, drives Stanley into his cruelty, into a madness his own.
This all might come as a twin casualty with the sacrifice of the dialogue; but at any rate, it is a loss. The brute Stanley and the battered Blanche shed the layers of complexity that made Tennessee Williams’ one of the twentieth century’s greatest playwrights – though having done so, I suppose, they danced more freely, emoted more purely and therefore on a grander scale.
As with every calculated loss the Scottish Ballet took, however, there were triumphs in this revision, this ironing-out. Meckler and Ochoa turned away from the nuance of naturalist theatre and reached instead for the power of archetypal feeling, operatic emotion. And they succeeded. This was never more evident than in the ballet’s climax, which took the implied rape in Williams’ script and made it brilliantly, brutally explicit, in choreography that left eyelids inoperable and mouths agape. (“Nothing like a little bit of rape on a Saturday afternoon,” the Scottish woman beside me said to her friend after the final curtain had fallen. It was a comment still half-nervous, possible only after the calming interlude of clapping. We were all still in awe.) Peter Salem’s score was so powerful here that it seemed to become a physical part of the set, with a sound like pulsing pain or a beating cut vein amplified in the cavern of the head.
Yes, the final scene – in which Blanche is led away by a doctor, to be institutionalized, delusional to the point of total disassociation – without her heartbreaking line: “whoever you are, I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers.” But we all knew it anyway – and with two hours of passionate dance still playing in afterimages behind our eyes, this was more than enough.