Noah J Nelson on Wednesday, Oct. 14th
The Live Arts Exchange festival is an annual showcase of experimental performance art and theatre in Los Angeles.
There’s a reason why Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire remains an essential part of the American theatrical canon. It’s not because of the iconic 1951 Elia Kazan film that made Marlon Brando the archetypical actor’s actor of the 20th Century. Nor is it merely the eminently quotable, lyrical dialogue which flows throughout the work.
The reason for Streetcar’s central position in the canon is illuminated in director Zoe Aja Moore’s production at the live arts exchange festival. Moore is the experimental theatre provocateur who constructed last year’s Dedicated To A True Lover (and therefore probably nobody) , which was in part a de-construction of Rainer Werner Fassbinders Whity. Equal parts equally baffling and delightful, True Lover at first set me against it with an obtuse narrative flow, only to win me over after it was clear that Moore was building a theatrical grammar up in front us in real time. For better or worse, this production of Streetcar is a lot more straightforward than that, making it more accessible if not quite as ambitious from a structural standpoint.
Moore is attracted—in both True Lover and Streetcar—to playing with the iconography of film in order to illuminate the themes underlying the text. Here that impulse takes the form of Mitchell (Ryan Masson) briefly watching the film version of Streetcar at the top of the action, just long enough to illustrate the journey Blanche DuBois (Andrea LeBlanc) takes on the namesake streetcar to the apartment her sister Stella (Cristina Fernandez) shares with husband Stanley Kuwoski (Jesse Saler).
Moore stages the action in the round, bringing much of the staging in close to the audience. This physical intimacy can make some people uncomfortable, especially during kinetic sequences that border on—or crossover into—violence. My companion flinched more than once when an actor ran past. Whether you find this to be a feature or a bug depends entirely on the degree of immersion that you seek in your live performances.
Speaking of. There’s a nod here as well to the popularity of immersive theatre, with a few audience members getting tapped to come onstage during Stanley’s card game. (I got to go up, and I think I might have freaked out Saler a little with my uncanny card catching skills.) The production, however, doesn’t go fully immersive. All in all this is a more restrained, emotionally focused production that True Lover was. We might start with Mitch in front of a video and with Blanche carrying around a mattress on her back but the stage abstractions are present more as emotional shorthand than as a driving force in the production.
It’s a risk, one that could hobble the heart of the story by drawing the audience out without sending them fully into a post-modern headspace. Instead I found Moore’s use of abstraction effective. The balance of physical intimacy and kinetic abstraction here creates a tense line. By the end of the production I was left somewhat shaken, in that kind of not-quite cathartic stun that an effective drama leaves me in.
The sum total of the production—abstractions and the toe-dip dose of participation included—all adds up to reveal, rather than overwhelm, the power of the text. The beating heart of Streetcar are these gloriously messed up characters, and Moore’s production shines a sharp light on each of these souls. While the language belongs to an earlier age, the events that transpire could be found inside any number of apartment blocks not far from where you are now.
That’s not only an argument for Streetcar being in the American canon, but for a canon existing at all.
A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Zoe Aja Moore, plays though October 25th at the Bootleg (2220 Beverly Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90057) as part of the Live Arts Exchange Festival.