Theater 30.2 (2000) 155-159
[Access article in PDF]
Commuting beyond the Stereotypes:
The Dangerous Trek of Ivo van Hove's A Streetcar Named Desire
There's nothing like a little deconstruction to raise the hackles of the all-powerful New York drama critics. The mockingly dismissive reviews of Ivo van Hove's fascinating, if flawed, production of A Streetcar Named Desire last fall at the New York Theatre Workshop provided further evidence, as though any more were needed, of their intractable conservatism. Faced with a nontraditional staging of Tennessee Williams's chestnut, they fell almost unanimously into battle formation. Only animal cruelty provokes more public ire than a director who dares to take liberties with a classic, no matter that the production's ultimate intent may be trying to reanimate, not perversely travesty, the playwright's seemingly sacrosanct vision. [End Page 155]
Given the interpretive instability of any enduring dramatic text (particularly one with a claim to greatness), there's clearly more than one way to demonstrate fidelity to the entity the French mistakenly pronounced dead a generation ago. Hard to believe this contemporary critical commonplace is still considered radical by the New York Times, but then one shouldn't mistake superficial interest in alternative theater for rigorous critical engagement. In the November 7 Sunday Times Arts and Leisure section spread lamenting the decline of the straight play on Broadway (not exactly hot news to those who've been awake the last thirty years), the critic pays homage to playwriting both off and off-off-Broadway. This noble idea remains unsubstantiated when Margaret Edson's elementary cancer play Wit becomes the standard by which all other work is judged. It's instructive to track the way certain earnest and not particularly aesthetically groundbreaking productions are instantly, even aggressively, bestowed with a pseudocanonical status at the expense of more challenging work aiming to renew the theatrical palette.
The prankish tone of Ben Brantley's review of van Hove's Streetcar reveals precisely how the more things change at the Times, the more they stay the same. Quipping that he will always think of this production as "A Bathtub Named Desire," he begins with his version of a quote: "Stella! . . . glug, glug, glug . . . Stella!"--the "glug, glug, glug" shorthand for the fact that Stanley's famous bellowing cry sounds from an overflowing bathtub. Straightaway Brantley signals his lack of seriousness, as if he were being forced to respond to something far below his critical acumen. (Nothing, of course, can compare in vitriol to John Simon's sniperlike approach in New York magazine, in which van Hove not only gets called a "Belgian charlatan," but is accused of perpetrating a textual "rape." To the Serbian-born critic, the mere fact that this production can thrive in New York is proof positive of the wretchedness of our time.)
That there is something valuable to be learned from the kind of deconstruction van Hove is attempting, even if the work achieves only mixed results, seems not to have occurred to these columnists. For a play as iconic as Streetcar, this is particularly distressing. More than any other contemporary American drama, [End Page 156] it cries out for cleansing treatment, a ruthless stripping of the clichés and stereotypes that have built up like barnacles over the decades, from Elia Kazan's famous Broadway production and Hollywood film to the innumerable community playhouse knockoffs.
I don't want to overpraise van Hove's achievement. Even those enamored with his production couldn't help pointing out the unevenness of the cast, made particularly glaring by the discrepancy between Elizabeth Marvel's searing Blanche and Bruce McKenzie's wimpy Stanley. Nor did all the director's explosive interpretive choices, meant to raise the subtext to the surface, pay off. At times the actors seemed coerced into embarrassingly literal-minded interpretations of their character's psychological states; at others they simply appeared unable to execute the director's vision. For example, Jenny Bacon's stentorian portrayal of Stella frequently lapsed into caricature...