“A Streetcar Named Desire” — a review of the Scottish Ballet’s riveting production

The Scottish Ballet‘s production of A Streetcar Named Desire begins with Blanche, wearing a white wedding dress, desperately reaching for a single bulb dangling overhead. She’s a fragile moth (a potent symbol here in the American South), but we know that she’s on the verge of self-destruction and that the light will eventually betray her.

This adaptation of Streetcar debuted in 2012, but I saw it for the first time a couple of days ago at Spoleto in Charleston. I’ve been thinking about the (virtually) wordless take on Tennessee Williams’ classic play ever since.

After the brief vignette with Blanche and the bare bulb, the balletic adaptation makes the first of several bold, potent choices. In the play, we learn about Blanche’s tragic marriage to Alan — the suicidal repressed homosexual — via dialogue relatively deep into the text, but the Scottish Ballet’s Streetcar moves the story up front, to great effect.

Granted, it might have been difficult for the ballet’s audience to follow the narrative if Williams’ original structure were retained, but embracing the chronology allows the full tragedy to unfold in a surprisingly fresh way. The reordering of scenes is just one of the successful and compelling choices by director Nancy Meckler, choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, designer Niki Turner, lighting designer Tim Mitchell, and composer Peter Salem. Kudos to all.

The celebration of Blanche’s elegant wedding is interrupted by the sexual tension between Alan and his soon-to-be lover. Blanche tries to get between the two men, but the tension, desire, and, eventually, shame create an insurmountably potent mix.

In an especially beautiful and evocative sequence, we see Blanche throw herself into wanton, escapist sex with a variety of men, and then we eventually see the literal crumbling of Belle Reve, which is preceded by a magnificently choreographed moment as family members die off.

Again, we see these scenes before Blanche’s fateful move to Elysian Fields — and we really see them. So instead of the reasons for Blanche’s desperation unfolding through spoken flashbacks, we see the roots right up front. The choice allows Blanche to be haunted periodically by Alan’s beautiful, blooded corpse and allows the play’s darkest themes and its homoeroticism to resonate in sudden, powerful ways.

If none of this sounds very subtle, well it isn’t — but it is. The ballet’s erotic sequences are restrained and artful; Alan’s suicide takes place off stage; the music has a fitting regional flair and captures the many moods of the story, but never becomes melodramatic.

We saw the Scottish Ballet’s Streetcar on the Saturday afternoon matinee at Charleston’s Sottile Theatre, and I found the performances and casting uniformly excellent, but I would have loved to see an evening show to see the alternate performers. The lineup that we saw will perform only one of the four shows at the Kennedy Center later this week.

As Blanche, Araminta Wraith has the expressiveness of both a skilled dancer and a silent film star. Fortunately, we were close enough to get the full effect of the anguish she projects just with her expressions and impossibly wide eyes. Wraith has a wonderfully lithe quality in the dream-like orgy at the hotel, but for much of the show she allows herself to project a tension and fragility that effectively ages Blanche.

Andrew Peasgood is youthful and absurdly handsome as Blanche’s husband Alan, and Rimbaud Patron (really, I want to meet the parents who would name their son Rimbaud) is intensely seductive as his lover. I just have three words to say about the Peasgood-Patron pairing: hot, hot, hot.

I’ve focused so far on the opening scenes of this adaptation of Streetcar; the real drama unfolds in sweaty New Orleans. Bethany Kingsley-Garner captures the naiveté of Blanche’s sister Stella; we empathize with her desire to please both her sister and her husband, and we want to shield her unborn child from the surrounding brutality. Christopher Harrison at first seems a little too fresh and youthful as Stanley Kowalski, but he soon won me over with his broad-shouldered, hyper-masculine swagger and smoldering stares — not to mention his athletic dancing.

There are few wrong notes. The bowling alley sequence perhaps feels a bit too West Side Story-ish, and I occasionally wanted something more soaring from the choreography, especially during the gorgeously staged ensemble numbers. And it’s worth noting that one word is uttered in the production: “Stella”. I imagine the creative team agonized over the handling of the iconic scene when Stanley collapses in the street to express his sorrow for assaulting his pregnant wife, but I think the scene would play better if he expressed all the emotion through his body.

But those seem like small flaws in such a rich, provocative adaptation.

By the time we got to intermission, the story seemed largely told. Could there really be a full second act? As it turns out, yes. The dance becomes more expressionistic — including an extended sequence where we see the full depth of Blanche’s dissolution, even before she is brutalized, degraded, and raped by Stanley. The reprise of the orgy scene, the proliferation of Mexican women selling flowers for the dead, Blanche’s emotional abandonment by Stella (who has no choice but to side with Stanley) and by her last-chance-suitor Mitch (played with excellent energy by Remi Andreoni), even the rape itself — all these scenes are thoughtfully and powerfully wrought.

Click on through for some images from the production (I would sure love to have gotten a chance to shoot this show):

Photographs from the 2015 tour of Nancy Meckler and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's A Streetcar Named Desire. All photographs by Andy Ross.

Posted by Scottish Ballet on Tuesday, March 17, 2015