Modernized 'Streetcar' makes for enjoyable evening

Theater purists might not like Naked Navigation Theatre Collective’s touring production of Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” playing at the Onyx Theatre. While the risks that director Dana Martin takes in adapting Williams’ text don’t always play out, they make for an enjoyable evening of theater.

Martin subtly modernizes the play’s setting with the use of a contemporary score by Tom Stillwagon as entr’acte music. When Stella offers Blanche water as a chaser for her drink, she pulls a plastic bottle out of the fridge. In the opening act, Stella wears tights. By not overtly setting the play within a contemporary time frame, Martin achieves a sense of tragic timelessness.

Although “Streetcar” is set in New Orleans, none of the actors attempt the rich Southern Gothic that has etched the play’s lines indelibly upon American culture. I think Martin is attempting what some contemporary productions of Shakespeare attempt, which is to make the language more accessible by making it more natural. She doesn’t want us listening for famous lines; she wants us to hear the characters talking.

I don’t think it worked. Blanche manipulates those around her and creates her illusory trappings through her gestures and archaic speech, and a rich Southern accent lends itself to her melodrama.

In a Brecht-like gesture, Martin has the actors sit on the wings of the stage viewing the action. This helps to reinforce the sense that Blanche is living a life of illusion and melodrama. Likewise, transparent sheets divide Stanley and Stella’s small apartment and serve as veils of illusion for Blanche.

Melita Ann Sagar’s Blanche Dubois is a strong woman despite her pretense of frailty. Sagar creates the illusion of being a faded beauty. Her Blanche seems aware that she is playing a role and is choosing her alcohol-fueled illusions over the horror of her reality. One senses that her Blanche has within her resources for survival equal to Stanley’s assaults. Which makes her final retreat into unreality tragic, although even in the nadir of her defeat she is still able to manipulate “the kindness of strangers.” One of Sagar’s best moments is her swift transition from seducing the paperboy to playing the coquette for Mitch.

Kenric Green plays Stanley Kowalski like a controlled nuclear reaction. He asserts that he is king of his castle and he uses his physical force almost calmly to get his way. He is entirely confident of victory in his battle with Blanche. When he pulls off his wife-beater it isn’t to seduce Blanche but to physically dominate her. Stella comments that Stanley’s mark of superiority isn’t on his forehead and Blanche likens him to an animal or a caveman. Martin’s nontraditional casting of a black actor in the role of Polish Stanley Kowalski reinvigorates for the audience the viciousness of Blanche’s slurs when she calls Stanley a Polack or refers to him as an ape. Stanley’s final assault on Blanche is not a sexual act but a violent stripping of her pretensions.

Kama Ruby Maccioli plays Stella Kowalski with a voluptuous Earth Mother sensuality. Yet despite her likable commonness she also is prone to choose illusion over reality in her marriage. Stanley’s physical violence started long before “sister Blanche” arrived on the scene. In the end she consciously chooses her illusion of Stanley over the reality of what he did to Blanche and we see the first steps of her own mental disintegration.

Perhaps the play’s most tragic figure is Mitch, played by Jeremy Minagro. Blanche manipulates him into seeing himself as a gallant, and when Stanley pulls the veil of illusion from his eyes he feels he has been made unclean by Blanche’s sexual manipulation. Minagro’s portrayal of the socially maladroit Mitch is heart-rending.

By making Williams’s overwrought melodrama more accessible Martin underplays the play’s emotional impact. Nonetheless this is a “Streetcar” well worth riding, especially for the powerful performances by the four leads. A portion of the show’s proceeds will be donated to organizations in Las Vegas addressing issues of violence against women.