Fifteen minutes into the Scottish Ballet’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire the projected image of an antebellum mansion that is the backdrop for the ballet’s first scene shatters in a dusty, noisy crash of boxes that have been piled into a twelve foot high wall at the back of the stage. The boxes, which are reused to build sets that eventually stand in for bars, bedrooms, and tenements for the rest of the production, lie in a heap at the back of the stage, a constant reminder of decay, broken lives, and devastation too pervasive to run from. In the collapsing mansion we have an unforgettable metaphor for Blanche DuBois’ life, the derailed early marriage and ensuing litany of destructive personal secrets.
This Streetcar is a cooperative venture with a cohesive point of view and book by stage director Nancy Meckler and choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. Two things are different from the Tennessee Williams original: a more female point of view, and a story that reveals Blanche’s thinly concealed past at the beginning of the narrative rather than the end. Both the beginning and end of the production give us a Blanche fluttering under a suspended light. Embedded there is the depressing suggestion that a life can be lived and go, nowhere. Ochoa has layered onto the narrative a neo-romantic dance atmosphere mostly reserved for Blanche, and an acted, contemporary and jazz inflected movement that becomes the domain of the men and the other female character’s including Blanche’s sister, Stella. All of it is backed imaginatively by composer Peter Salem’s music which lays out romantic sweep, uptown swing, smoky saxophone infused lines, and Cajun bands in a well-blended and cohesive score. Among the music highlights was the bitter recurrence of the jazz standard It’s Only a Paper Moon as a kind of twisted leitmotif for Blanche.
The men’s roles don’t have nearly the complexity that the women do. This Stanley Kowalski, played by principal Christopher Harrison, is one-dimensional and remote, not nearly the graphic, sweaty manifestations Marlon Brando and Treat Williams inhabited on film. Not far from this telling are lightly limned hints of the Giselle story including substantial sections for dancers in pointe shoes. Ghost dancers appear and reappear at different points in the story: a husband in a gay liaison lost to suicide, a dream sequence of Blanche as a prostitute, an ensemble of women in the Letter scene standing in for lost youth and ruined relationships, and finally a chorus of flower sellers– they carry roses in their mouths–like a New Orleans style second line who slam the door shut on Blanche’s story as she departs for the asylum. All of these elements, in a sense, feel like old style redesigned for a twentieth century play.
At the center of this production is Eve Mutso as Blanche, a role originally made for her. No longer a permanent member of the company, she returns in this production to dance as a guest artist. The real feat for Mutso is combining confident (and complex) dancing with an increasingly, unhinged, agitated decline. It’s a tough business which she sorts out with seasoned maturity. Stella, played by Sophie LaPlane, is the other female pillar in this production. She makes the most of her mix of gutsy resistance and steamy, sexually charged weakness.
This is a beautifully made production. The period costumes and set designs by Niki Turner, and Tim Mitchell’s lighting designs created a minimalistic New Orleans but one in which you didn’t miss the familiar cramped quarters and furniture stuffed realism of film or stage versions. It was that elusive combination of terrific dance and theater pulled together in story as much an homage to a classic as a vibrant departure.
(The reviewed performance took place Friday May 19, 2017 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, California. Click here for the Scottish Ballet trailer of “Streetcar”)