Sunday, April 25, 2010

Havin' a Beer With Stanley Kowalski

Carte Blanche’s Intimate STREETCAR

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Renaissance Theaterworks has a question on a current survey asking, “If Renaissance Theaterworks was a person, how would you describe her personality?” An interesting idea. While each theatre group has it own personality, it’s difficult to distill that personality into a single identity. There are too many people involved. A theatre group is more like a family related by interest and experience rather than blood and shared backgrounds. Every time you go to a show,  you’re a guest of the family that put the show together. Some families are more formal than others. I like going to big shows, but there tends to be less of a personal connection, which is a big part of the reason for going to a show to begin with. Friday night I got a bit lost hanging out with Carte Blanche and its production of Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire.

I got in to the show a bit early. Carte Blanche has put in an extensive amount of work on establishing its café end. As he is not directing the latest show, Carte Blanche’s Jimmy Dragolovich has finally had some time to more fully develop the non-theatre end of the space. With a liquor license, multiple beverage choices and established hours of operation as a standalone café, the interpersonal end of the space is that much more established. By establishing a bar, Carte Blanche becomes a standalone destination—see a show, have a drink, hang out with the theatre’s family of talent afterwards. It’s a similar set-up to the Alchemist Theatre, but the two spaces are hardly in competition. Milwaukee is big enough for a dozen bar/theatre spaces and more than enough indigenous talent to keep them all running throughout the year. The trick is getting enough people to come to the shows to support them financially. Carte Blanche’s production of Streetcar is impressive—shows like this have the kind of appeal that could easily sell-out an entire run.

The Friday night performance was introduced by actor Michael Keiley. Keiley has a very natural magnetism onstage which is all the more apparent when he’s NOT in character. Keiley unwittingly did an opening curtain speech like he was giving the audience notes. The fact that this came across as charming and not . . . well . . . annoying says a lot about Keiley’s charm onstage.

The show settles-in quite comfortably. Sitting in the front row of a show like this may bring some uncomfortably close to an emotionally charged drama, but I’m drawn to those seats . . . close enough to see all those details that make the set feel sort of lived-in. It’s a bit cramped and squalid, but it’s comfortable. Sit in the front row near the kitchen and there’s Clayton Hamburg as a very animalistic Stanley Kowalski. In the front row right across from the kitchen table, I was sitting close enough to the poker game to feel a bit out of place not having a hand of cards myself. And as this is Streetcar, nearly everyone in the production smokes. The smoke drifts into the audience, adding atmosphere. Near the end of the play,  Blanche (Katrina Greguska,) Stanley and Stella (Samantha Page) are sitting down to dinner. This is dinner on a budget . . . corn, mashed potatoes and Salisbury steak. Not particularly appealing, but it is actual food. There’s anger—an outburst. Plates fly. Corn litters the floor. (Rumor has it, in living out the anger of Stanley, Hamburg actually managed to inadvertently break an “unbreakable,” plastic plate.) At some point, Stanley walks back in, sees a piece of Salisbury steak on the floor, picks it up and eats it. This is a really interesting, really visceral performance. The interaction between Page and Greguska as Stella and Blanche is impressively magnetic at close range. Michael Traynor’s nice guy awkwardness in his interactions with Blanche are a lot of fun to watch and he has an impressive attention to detail that seems really authentic, even from the first row.

Somewhere near the end of it all, I’m sitting there in the front row and it’s kind of a silent moment. The audience is allowed to bring drinks from the bar into the theatre. This bring Streetcar, I’m sure a certain kind of audience would probably work out some kind of drinking game with the play . . . y’know--whenever they drink, you drink . . .  but I didn’t realize how having a beer with the play after intermission helped add to the atmosphere near the end of the show . . . There’s that silent moment with Stanley in the kitchen and there I am in the front row . . . practically in the kitchen myself. And Stanley and I inadvertently raise our bottles at the same time. And it’s more than a bit disturbing, but there’s a kind of connection with the darkness in the drama of the play that comes from that. There I am having a beer with Stanley Kowalski—linking-up with a live production of Streetcar in a way few would be able to.

It’s not often that an audience has a chance to get this physically close to Tennessee Williams. The drama is well-executed, but the intimacy makes this absolutely essential for anyone who loves mid-20th century American drama.

Carte Blanche Theatre’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire runs through May 8th at Carte Blanche’s space on 1024 South 5th Street. A concise review of the show runs in this week’s Shepherd-Express.

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