The tension between them is palpable.
The first time Stanley Kowalski comes across his enigmatic sister-in-law Blanche DuBois, he studies her up and down, quietly dissecting her every move. There is something about her that is wholly appealing, yet disconcerting. And as time passes, the lies of Blanche and the ferocity of Stanley come to a head.
There is collateral damage aplenty, and the heartbreak of so many ruined lives in the French Quarter of New Orleans leads to disastrous consequences.
The fantastic production of Tennessee Williams’ 1948 Pulitzer Prize-winning play “A Streetcar Named Desire” at Ubuntu Theater Project in Oakland feels so fresh, so alive because the highly skilled interpretation reverberates mightily throughout the room of the Alice Collective. It is a production that stays with you, riding on the coattails of its phenomenal, discovered acting and the impeccable vision of director Emilie Whelan.
The story and the history of “Streetcar” are familiar. Blanche (a magnificent Lisa Ramirez) arrives into the suffocating flat of her sister Stella (a fantastic turn by Sarita Ocón) and Stella’s husband Stanley (a visceral, dangerous Ogie Zulueta). Blanche is terribly charming, yet arrives after some tragedy, which saw her losing the family home of Belle Reve to creditors.
Blanche doesn’t waste time making herself comfortable, helping herself to plenty of Stanley’s liquor, convincing anyone in her midst that she doesn’t drink much. That little bit of personal disclosure might be funny and charming, but it serves as an augury of more sinister themes that overflow throughout the stage as the story unfolds.
So much of this production works on levels that are both above and beneath the surface. There is a grueling drive that pushes Stanley toward the truth, and an empathetic bent that keeps Stella firmly on the side of her fallen sister.
These three principals are driven by fantastic choices born from iconic writing. Ocón is fabulous as a woman caught in the middle of so much. There is clearly the loyalty that exists towards her sister, a woman whom she feels is searching for something. And in one of the most uncomfortable moments in the play, when Stella is willed back into the sculpted, abusive arms of Stanley, she unapologetically returns, despite the protestations of the protective landlord Eunice (a fierce Champagne Hughes).
Stanley, as interpreted by Zulueta, controls whatever room he occupies, whether it’s the insane drive he has when playing poker, or even the threatening way he holds a package of meat, his inner fire and torture plays well with his pedantic instincts and investigative moments that completely expose the aura of Blanche.
And speaking of Blanche, this play rests firmly in the hands of Ramirez, who is just devastatingly fantastic. It’s the little things she does that are intoxicating, especially seeing her speech slowly cascade down as she becomes more and more intoxicated, coinciding with her metaphoric collapse. The words built from her southern belle drawl do not slide off her tongue the way they did earlier in the play, for so many reasons.
Just notice the way her confidence slips away when Mitch (an empathetic Dominick Palamenti) doesn’t show up for her birthday. This contrasts mightily with that first meeting between the two with their discovery of shared loneliness, when Mitch bought into every little fantasy that Blanche was selling. The denouement between the two is crushing, especially because the two varied stances that Mitch is forced to take, from wide-eyed infatuation to fury-filled loathing contrast so mightily.
There is no part of Ramirez’s performance that is not dripping with pathos, but with warm, gentle doses of humor sprinkled throughout. She is masterful when speaking, measured when silent.
Of all the things that this production does well, one thing about it stands out – it doesn’t leave you right away because it is all encompassing. The space, with Whelan’s magnificent staging, lends itself to a total theatre experience where an audience bears witness to all the magic, fantasy and misogyny this play offers.
Ubuntu must be considered one of the Bay’s most important companies, because especially in this case, they offer high level interpretations of theatre classics that are accessible to everyone. They have given an opportunity to those artists of color who might not have known a world that would allow them to play a Stanley, a Stella or a Blanche. This is critical.
This play functions as both a production and an experience. And once the light illuminates after the shade that exists over their lamp is removed, a multi-layered universe is revealed, and it is equal parts joy and pain.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
Ubuntu Theater Project presents “A Streetcar Named Desire”
Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Emilie Whelan
The Word: Fantastic from the first sung note, an all-encompassing, fresh production that is loaded with joy, pain and pathos.
Stars: 5 out of 5
Running Time: Two hours, 25 minutes with one 15-minute intermission
The Alice Collective
272 14th Street, Oakland, CA
Through Feb. 25th
Tickets range from $15 – $45
For tickets, visit www.ubuntutheaterproject.com