The Comedie-Francaise, France’s oldest and most prestigious theater, has staged the first U.S. play in its 330-year history, Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Alas, it’s a production the author would hardly recognize. Director Lee Breuer tells the story of Blanche, the neurotic southern belle who comes to stay with her sister Stella in New Orleans and ends up in an insane asylum, in the stylized manner of Bunraku, the Japanese puppet theater.
The Paris theater company must have known that it was in for a surprise: Breuer is a co-founder of Mabou Mines, an experimental troupe in New York.
What you see is a minimalist set with black platforms and a few props -- a bed, a table, a chair -- constantly moved around by hooded assistants. Canvases with Japanese motifs float by in the background. The streetcar also appears at the beginning and at the end.
In the poker scene, Stanley, Stella’s brutish husband, and his buddies sit in the four corners of the stage, gesticulating and shouting at each other in the throaty manner that we recognize from samurai movies.
When Stanley rapes Blanche, he appears accompanied by four doppelgangers in green wigs and purple pajamas, which may mean the scene is a hallucination of her deranged mind.
At the end, Blanche is led away by five masked fellows who seem to have stepped out of a Venetian painting. Before they disappear with their patient, they throw off their black coats and morph into a cheerful blues band in white tails.
Jazzy interludes (John Margolis) interrupt and often overlap with the dialogue. Some scenes are performed almost as a ritual dance.
In the program, Breuer defends his unorthodox approach as a necessary antidote to the realism of Elia Kazan’s first Broadway production and his subsequent film: “We have to explore new interpretations. If we don’t do that, the play will dry up and die.”
The program also refers to a conversation between Williams and the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima in which they agreed that Japan and the Deep South had much in common. What they definitely had in common was that both authors were gay.
The real issue is the difficulty in finding actors able to take on Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando, who starred in the film. Instead of facing the competition, the game is shifted to another field.
That’s even more unfortunate because Anne Kessler could have been a perfect Blanche, in no way inferior to Leigh’s classic portrayal. She easily moves from social snobbery to drunken reeling, from delusions of grandeur to barely controlled lust.
Eric Ruf, on the other hand, is miscast as Stanley. It’s almost touching to see such an elegant leading man gyrating his hips and pretending to be a wild beast. With his long blond hair, he looks more like an aging hippie.
Francoise Gillard is a likeable Stella. Gregory Gadebois, who enters and exits on a motorcycle, has the talent to play Mitch, Blanche’s good-natured suitor. It’s unlikely, though, that Blanche, even in her darkest moments, would date such a heavily tattooed leather punk.
“Un Tramway Nomme Desir” is in repertory at the Comedie-Francaise, Paris, through June 2. Information: http://www.comedie-francaise.fr or (from France only) 08-2510-1680.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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