Music / Noteworthy Nellies / Plays / Reviews / Solidarity and Sisterhood

DIY Theatre is alive in A Streetcar Named Desire: The House Show

Feature photo by Annalise Walmer 

Article by Sarah Watson 

TRIGGER WARNING: This review contains descriptions of domestic violence 

In a back alley in the west end of downtown Toronto, a small crowd gathers. A woman in a jean jacket sits on the back steps of an apartment building. “Got any spare change?” she asks in a New Orleans accent. People pay their fee as they arrive. Soon they meet Stella, and then in steps Blanche Dubois, looking lost, having just taken a streetcar named “Desire.” Blanche is invited up to her sister Stella’s apartment and we’re obliged to follow. Up a fire escape we enter Stella and Stanley Kowalski’s living room and their lives.

We sit along one side of the room and as the play continues there is a feeling of being a fly on the wall in the lives of characters that seem all too real.

“A Streetcar Named Desire: The House Show”, is a modern punk-rock retelling of the classic play by Tennessee Williams about the dramatic reunion of two estranged sisters. It’s presented by Studio BLR, a DIY theatre company formerly based out of the beloved underground punk venue Siesta Nouveaux, which closed down last year to make way for condominiums. Lynne Rafter, who also stars as Blanche Dubois, runs BLR.

“This is the play I wanted to put on at Siesta,” says Rafter. “I’ve been looking for a place to do it since Siesta was torn down. I didn’t find one. What do punk bands do when they can’t find a venue to play? Put on a house show!”

The small venue improves, rather than hinders, the theatre-going experience. The audience is so close to the performance that they can’t help being fully drawn into all the disturbing action. You can see every bit of violence, every gut-wrenching tear. The intensity of the performance is all the more impressive considering the show was put together in only a month. The cast self-directed and rehearsed every day, usually both morning and night.

Cast on set after the show (from left) Mackenzie Gruer, Luke Gallo, Lynne Rafter and Alex Strauss (Mitch)  Photo by Sarah Watson

Cast on set after the show: Luke Gallo, Lynne Rafter and Alex Strauss (Mitch)
Photo by Sarah Watson

This version of the play, though mainly sticking with the original script, chooses to update and punk-ify a few elements. Most notably, instead of playing poker with his friends, Stanley has band rehearsal. Each performance features a different local musical group as Stanley’s band. Last Thursday showcased the talents of Love’n’Botto, who performed partway through the play. This nicely broke up the action and added another level of entertainment to the show.

With such an amazing cast, this performance was more than a roller coaster of emotions; it was a free fall into pain and madness. Rafter rightly captures the psychological wreck that is Blanche Dubois. Blanche desperately tries to delude herself and everyone around her that she is a fine, upright woman of good upbringing, when she is obviously traumatized from events in her past. To see the happy-go-lucky Rafter as the nervous, frail Blanche was an astounding transformation.

“I wanted to put on the play because I’d actually played the role many years ago. I was nowhere near the appropriate age then, but I am now,” she says.

“As an actor I always want to play these amazing choice parts that I imagine no one would ever cast me in because of all the competition. If I put on my own productions I can play whoever I want.”

Rafter underestimates her own skills.

Blanche doesn’t hide her sense of superiority when she enters the small, run-down apartment of her younger sister Stella, played by the likable Mackenzie Gruer. Stella and Blanche care deeply about each other, even though they can occasionally treat each other awfully. Neither has given full disclosure in their previous correspondence, but slowly the truth spills out.

(From left) Mackenzie Gruer and Lynne Rafter  Photo by Sarah Watson

Photo by Sarah Watson

Stella lends unsettling insight into being the wife of an abuser. Stanley’s anger and violence – from knocking over a table to hitting his wife – seems so real that, as an audience member, you’re forced to endure all the pain with these characters, which at times is excruciating. Stanley (played by Luke Gallo) has internalized patriarchy to the point that he calls himself the “king” of the household and treats everything and everyone in it as his personal property. He has all the financial and physical power, so there is little Blanche or Stella can do. He is completely destructive, throwing things around the apartment. When Stanley drinks he gets aggressive, and he drinks a lot.

When Stanley hits Stella for the first time in the play, it’s shocking. She and Blanche flee to her neighbours. Stanley wakes up alone and upset and calls for Stella in that iconic scene. Luke yells out the apartment window. The king has become vulnerable. Stella comes back in, with a harsh look at first, but seeing the man she loves seemingly broken, ashamed and at her mercy, she falls back into his arms, the violence subdued. It starts to make sense why some women in this situation often enough don’t leave: Stella has just been socialized to think that this is the way things are.

After the performance, Gruer laughs that her eyes were still swollen from crying. Stella’s tears had been incredibly real.

“I have no interest in spending my life auditioning for toothpaste commercial spots and not getting the gig,” Rafter says.

“I think that live music and theatre are both such a powerful forms of communication, and I’m interested in making classics like “Streetcar” accessible to an audience that would otherwise not get the opportunity.

A Streetcar Named Desire: The House Show, finishes its short run this week with final performances on Friday and Saturday evening. You can view their event page here for more information.  M


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