Streetcar superlatives

A Streetcar Named Desire (Brisbane Arts Theatre)

Brisbane Arts Theatre

January 31 – February 29

The 1947 play “A Streetcar Named Desire” is a significant one, the most celebrated of Tennessee Williams’ works. The classic drama, is poetically symbolic but also grimly naturalistic, which is represented in the detached but detailed staging of Brisbane Arts Theatre’s production. Staging works well in emphasising the play’s symbolism through its use of glassless mirrors and also aesthetically as lighting invites its audience into both the sweltering New Orleans temperatures and the tiny, tension-filled, rundown, clearly lived-in, two-room tenement apartment of Stanley (Reagan Warner) and Stella (Claire Argente) Kowalski.

Ryan McDonald’s lighting design transitions time and also reflects the work’s darker themes of shattered illusions. Erin Tribble’s costumes capture its post WW2 era and distinct characters, while Zoe Power’s sound design authenticates it’s setting with the echoes of passing New Orleans French Quarter streetcars. It is one of the Desire line cars that Blanche Du Bois (Victoria Darbro) takes to visit younger (but-not-really) sister Stella and her common Polack husband Stanley, seeking refuge after the loss of her family estate, the symbolically named Belle Reve (Beautiful Dream).

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What follows is a passionate but brutal story of toxic relationships and troubled people as Blanche finds Stanley brazen and abusive, while Stanley’s suspicious of both Blanche’s motives and her past increase towards cruelty. Like the languor of a steamy Louisiana afternoon, “A Streetcar Named Desire” is a long show of just over three hours’ duration (including two 10-minute intervals), which only makes the efforts of its performers all the more impressive.

The cast is excellent. Warner, who gave a commanding performance as John Proctor in 2018’s “The Crucible”, makes for a youthful Stanley but is otherwise up for the job as the chiselled and animalistic antagonist. His presence on stage is undeniable, even as he finds the script’s humour in search through Blanche’s trunk of precious costumes and jewels on a Napoleonic code quest of discovery and mention of his many acquaintances who deal with ‘this sort of stuff’. Laughs soon give way, however, to more sombre sentiments in the Kowalski’s abusive marriage and the collapse of Blanche’s world toward reliance on ‘the kindness of strangers’.

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Darbro is compelling as the fragile, faded belle Blanche, even if her delicate mental condition is apparent from the outset, leaving less room for her later fall. Still, her passive-aggressive, too-good-to-be-true refinement and nervous anxiety as the demure, pampered Southern belle leaving behind a life of loss in small-town Mississippi, is one of the best I have seen. Her accent is integral to her performance, rather than serving as a distracter and she handles a costuming slip-up without missing a character beat, although her monologues are not always as powerfully delivered as they perhaps could be.

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Argente does justice to the complicated role of Stella. Passionate in contrast to Blanche’s cool detachment from reality, but also calm and practical in the midst of chaos, she also captures the complex sensuality of Stella’s relationship with Stanley. Indeed, Argente and Warner are magnetic on stage together as the troublesome couple, whether fighting or reuniting. And solid in support is Jon Daabro as the decent and trusting Harold ‘Mitch’ Mitchell, the most mannered, but also meek, of Stanley’s poker-playing friends who shows Blanche kindness, but is blind to reality as he feelings are trifled with, meaning that we feel thankful when he gets to say exactly what is on his mind.

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A production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” is a formidable undertaking; not only is it a southern Gothic masterpiece, but it has integrated into popular culture, meaning that even those new to its experience on stage will likely have some familiarity with its most famous quotes, courtesy of pop culture staples like “Seinfeld” or “The Simpsons”. This is no museum piece though; the searing reality of the play on stage is an intense experience, especially given its explosive depictions of domestic violence. And in Brisbane Arts Theatre’s hands it is an intensity that results in superlative excellence all around.

Happy housewifery

The Real Housewives of Brisbane

Brisbane Arts Theatre

June 24 – August 6

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Joanne (Jessica Meyer), Gillian (Babette Bellini), Lulu (Hayley Fielding), Beezus (Elizabeth Horrowitz) and Penny (Lauren Evans) are the equally loved and feared glamourous Real Housewives of Brisbane. One by one they introduce themselves at the start of the Brisbane Arts Theatre musical of the same name, in parody of the US media franchise of shows that document the lives of a city’s affluent housewives. In the true tradition of the franchise, one day the women are besties, the next day, enemies. And they all have secrets, beyond just their ages and details of their cosmetic works.

The story starts with the group taking time out of their brunching and ladies-lunching lives, to gather at on-the-outs housewife Poppy’s final soiree. The funeral home doesn’t only serve as the perfect selfie backdrop (#amen) but also the location of Poppy’s beyond-the-grave decree that Joanne is the new head housewife. Though the most senior of the ladies, Beezus is shocked, Joanne is not surprised at all; her life is so amazing that even she’s jealous of it.

The resulting narrative unfolds with authentic nods to the motifs of the guilty-pleasure genre that trashbaggery tv tragics will appreciate. On-screen snippets of interview/confessional moments punctuate the on-stage action to assist in transition between scenes and add an appreciated touch through their Brisbane scene backdrops to the ladies who are, of course, always plugging a latest endorsed product of the ‘face yoga mat’ sort. These form an integral component of the reality genre and therefore a necessary part of the storytelling process, however, once the backstory of the ladies’ complicated relationships, both within the group and with others, is shared, things move from the tv show structure to a narrative of its own making, albeit with some recognisable plot lines such as when, like Teresa from “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” a Brisbane housewife and her husband are charged with fraud. Not only that, but there is the intrigue of infidelity and a rat in the ranks of the group, spilling their sex, lies and secret lives online.

Musically, the show is a mixed bag. The irreverence of songs with lyrics like “we tuck and then we nip… sometimes we skinny dip” suits the show’s fun feel, but, ensemble songs like ‘Bully Them Back’, as well Act One’s introductory number, fail to realise their potential due to a lack of collective vocal power. In solo numbers, there are some celebratory moments; Jessica Meyer finishes Act One strongly with sing of the tragedy of her life and, after intermission, Elizabeth Best delivers a strong, jazzy number to open Act Two to her fundraising charity Bitch Ball for deaf dogs.

“The Real Housewives of Brisbane” is full of funny moments and, of the ladies, Elizabeth Best is a standout as the straight-faced, cynical housewife-elder Beezus. In character contrast as Lulu, Hayley Fielding is also dramatically very good in conveying the cavalier ‘new-nose, new-you’ attitude of the always-medicated, newly-divorced housewife Lulu.

It is the supporting cast who are given the most to work with in terms of character though, and Reagan Warner and James Burton make a meal of even the smallest of comic opportunities. Proving his versatility, Warner goes from playing John Proctor in the theatre’s recent “The Crucible” production to becoming, amongst other things, a funeral director, apathetic shoe store worker, Moroccan spiritualist (because every Real Housewives season has a sun and fun vacation trip away) and most memorably an over-the-top fitness instructor leading an absolutely hilarious bouncing ball routine as a show highlight. Burton is similarly very funny in his various roles, particularly in show of lap dance boot camp moves as part of sex therapy with his Christian wife Penny, who remains oblivious to his flamboyance. Unfortunately, the men’s characters also showcase the dodgy wigs that seem to be trademark for an Arts Theatre show, though at least in this instance they sort of fit with the stereotypes that populate the parody.

Unfortunately, another staple of Arts Theatre shows seems to be sound issues and opening night of “The Real Housewives of Brisbane” is no exception to this. Indeed, significant sound concerns sometimes detract from overall enjoyment, especially in Act Two where a chunk of time is spent with songs and dialogue shared in competition with crackling audio static.

Although not the slickest of shows, “The Real Housewives of Brisbane” has a tongue-in-cheek appeal that makes it perfect for an easy-to-watch girls night out. It is full of fun and comfortable humour with digs at Ipswich and the Gold Coast, and a cat-fight of course. Like the tv genre it parodies, it is a wonderful guilty pleasure that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and is, therefore, recommended as a very happy couple of light-hearted hours.

Truth on trial

The Crucible

Brisbane Arts Theatre

April 7 – 19 May

A crucible is a vessel in which substances are heated to high temperatures; when impure elements are melted away, only the pure parts remain. Metaphorically speaking, it therefore represents the perfect titular description for American playwright Arthur Miller’s award-winning classic “The Crucible”, a play which was itself written as an extended metaphor of the hysteria of McCarthyism in post-World War Two America, during which, in fear of communist influence on American institutions, government officials accused countless supposed sympathisers of subversion or treason without proper regard for evidence. (Miller himself was questioned by the House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities and convicted of contempt for his refusal to name others).

The allegorical work is a partially fictionalised narrative that tells of the witch trials that occurred in the isolated theoretic society of Salem, Massachusetts in the late 17th century. The Puritan town’s minister Reverend Parris (Greg Scurr) is shocked to discover his daughter Betty (Sarah Willson), niece Abigail Williams (Claire Argente) and their friends dancing in the forest with his Barbados Slave Tituba (Jessica Meyer). When Betty faints in fright and will not wake, rumours of witchcraft spread throughout the town. While the townsfolk succumb to the sparked hysteria as, one by one, innocent residents are condemned to death, the audience is acutely aware that the pretence stems for Abigail’s desire to be with her former employer and lover John Proctor (Reagan Warner) and want for revenge upon his wife Elizabeth (Elizabeth Best).

Undertaking a production of such as well-crafted work is far from an easy task; the play is dense with historical detail, powerful and evocative phrases and distinctive language features of archaic words and unfamiliar expressions. In the case of Brisbane Arts Theatre’s production, these challenges prove no barrier to presenting a polished piece of theatre. Indeed, the actors all beautifully animate the Puritan cadences of dialogue of double negatives and dropped gs, making for some riveting performances as complex and flawed characters struggling to make sense of their experiences.

Warner’s John Proctor commands attention. He is physically, vocally and dramatically imposing as the harsh tongued and deeply flawed but also a courageous protagonist (as with so many of Miller’s heroes), shamed by his affair with Abigail, but ultimately triumphant in his personal integrity. And as his virtuous and composed wife Elizabeth, Best is also outstanding. She plays her as more steadfast the meek (as she is sometimes portrayed), and the dramatic tension is heightened because of it, meaning that even though their characters are emotionally estranged for a large proportion of the play, Warner and Best are especially superb whenever they are together on stage.  Argente makes Abigail physically emboldened by her new found celebrity but could be more menacing in bully of her friends, to truly showcase her vindictiveness in juxtaposition to John’s saintly wife.

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Whether contesting, corrupting or celebrating the law, each of the play’s judges are excellent. Scurr, in particular, rightly portrays Parris as more petty church leader rather than the paranoid and power-hungry tyrant seen in the 1996 film. In fact, there are many noteworthy performances from within the large ensemble of players. In what is arguably the most intense scene in the play, when everything is revealed, Leah Fitzgerald-Quinn is impressive as a physically anxious Mary Warren, brought to court by her master John Proctor to critically testify against her friend Abigail. Even Meyer makes Titiuba more than the easy-caricature that her minor appearances could have made her.

For all its acclaim, “The Crucible” is a long play and I am yet to see a production that does not feel long, and in some regards, this is still the case. Act One is heavy with backstory of character feuds, fractions, suspicions and some dissatisfaction with of a system of government in which priests rule in the name of God. Some off-stage dialogue helps with pacing, however, additional scenes, such as when the show begins with the girls dancing in the forest (a ritual only referred to in the original text), are unnecessary and unnecessarily stylised so at odds with the rest of the play. Rather, simple but effective staging allows the story to speak thorough performances. While the different coloured dresses of the girls are helpful in avoiding initial identity confusion for those unfamiliar with the work, they seem at odds with the strict and tense atmosphere and bleak, restrained Puritan life.

In its show of religious fervour in its worst light, “The Crucible” is an uncomfortable play to watch at times, however in the hands of Brisbane Arts Theatre, it transcends its specific allusions to become an absorbing, suspenseful illustration of the importance of integrity and the need for a commonsense and compassion when truth is on trial. More than a moving story about guilt and redemption, or even the miscarriage of justice that the Salem witchcraft trials represents, it is a drama about collective evil that is sadly all too topical in our post-truth times, given its indictment of group mentalities. And thanks to productions such as this one, it is easy to see why it still stands tall as a classic part of the dramatic canon.