Desire! [A Varsouviana]
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 29, 2012
With Desire! [A Varsouviana], James Presson, Patrick Fleury, Rachel Buethe, and Jenna Grossano, the artists who wrote and directed this piece for the ambitious and smart young theatre company Less Than Rent treat A Streetcar Named Desire as a canonical classic, akin to a Shakespeare play... and they've adapted and cut and contemporized to make it meaningful and accessible to an audience their own age (early 20s), the way that dozens of indie companies tackle the Bard's work every season.
It's something I've not seen done to Williams: this is not a deconstruction a la Ivo van Hove, but rather a faithful rendition mashed up with some contextual material and delivered as something new and fresh. It works.
The conceit of Desire! is that we are watching Williams the playwright in the midst of a sort of fever dream, as he both births his most famous play and wrestles with his own guilt and anguish over his treatment of a lost lover and his beloved sister, who is about to be lobotomized by their mother. Streetcar spins out, abridged but still full-bodied, with its key themes perhaps even more illuminated that ever. And interspersed with these "sampled" scenes (to use a term that Presson gave me) are scenes of the playwright agonizing over his creation and his own tribulations.
I've read and seen Streetcar a lot of times in my life, and I have my own ideas about what it means; I can't say that Desire! ultimately changed my mind about them as it put forth its interesting thesis about how/why Williams meshed his life with his art. But the art itself is realized boldly and beautifully in this production. Presson, Fleury, and Buethe have edited the script brilliantly, and Grossano's direction is at once refreshingly unfamiliar and joltingly clear.
Further, this production features excellent performances of roles that are ingrained in many people's consciousness. Buethe, in a pink wig and trendy short skirts and tall shoes, brings Blanche into the 21st century; she's a meaner, less refined, and less restrained version of the character than we're used to. Nicole Ventura is matter-of-fact and very much in control as Stella, while Cory Asinofsky makes Mitch less buttoned-up and more hypocritical than usual. Bianca Crudo makes more of downstairs neighbor Eunice than any actress I've seen. The revelatory performance, though, is Fleury's, as Stanley: down-to-earth, honest, direct, and brutal, he shows us why he's admired in his neighborhood, loved by his wife, and successful in his work. Fleury doesn't make him likeable so much as entirely empathetic and relatable; in many ways, we see the play through his eyes in spite of his playwright's intention.
Presson plays the omnipresent Williams, conjuring our memory of him rather cannily; I thought of his similarity to the real Tennessee much more than I ever thought of Brando or Leigh—tribute to the level of craft of this production.
Desire! is also distinguished by lots of music, spun live by DJ Dan Geggatt, and dancing, choreographed by Jennifer Delac, giving the show a pulsing energy that contributes quite a lot to its cathartic nature.
After reading, seeing, and living with Streetcar for decades, it's hard for me to come to it with fresh eyes. But Desire! makes it feel newer than it's felt for me before.