Regional Reviews: Albuquerque
Vessels - A Modern Retelling of A Streetcar Named Desire
Your grandfather's Streetcar made quite a splash in 1947. The Broadway production made Marlon Brando a star, legitimized method acting, and nabbed the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The play dramatized cultural clashes as well as sexual tensions. Stanley is a crude and untamed force of nature, the industrialized working brute. Blanche is the aristocratic South falling finally apart, hollow inside, a façade of lies outside. Torn between these mammoth forces, Stella doesn't stand much of a chance.
Sixty-five years later, playwright Kevin R. Elder has exploded this American classic and pieces go flying everywhere. He has updated the dialog, warped the story, and slammed it down on a rock musical backbone. He has dragged it through a field of comedy, made its sexuality graphic, even vulgar, and pushed it to the ridiculousway beyond the absurd. He enlisted his Los Angeles music-pro brother, Ryan Elder, to develop the music, while Kevin covered the lyrics.
Santa Fe director Kent Kirkpatrick put together an excellent rock band, The Younger Faces. It's the classic two guitars, bass and drums, with a keyboard to flesh things out and deepen the sound. The musicians set the scene, laying down the play's heart as audience members take their seats. As a pick-up band, The Younger Faces are strong. And once the play gets goingor perhaps chargingthe songs command the center of the production.
That brings me to my major frustration with Vesselsthe sound mix makes it difficult to hear the words. And they're good words. Two of the actors (Fernando Vasquez as Mitch, and Menendez) appeared on KUNM and sang one of the critical songs a cappella, revealing strong lyrics that further the story. The production certainly would be strengthened by intelligibility. The one a cappella song works the best, simply because you can understand the words. That's no slight on the excellent band, just the mix.
In many ways, Streetcar is merely a launching pad for Vessels. Elder has even added new characters. Mitch, for one, gets a real mom. While his relationship with his mother was insinuated in the original, now Ma (the wonderful Kristin Hansen) sits on a bench with him through much of the play, crushing his self confidence and nursing his needs. We get the three conductors (Miles Johnson O'Dowd, Quinn Rol and Stephen Armijo) who change roles through the play, ending up as cops. We also get a delivery boy (Drew Morrison).
Where the original insinuated the sexual passion between Stanley and Stella, as well as the wanton promiscuity of Blanche, Vessels displays it graphically. Sometimes it works well in dramatizing character, relationships and tensions; other times it's over the top. But much of this production is over the top, so I assume that is intended. Watch out for the red meat and the white doll.
The three-tiered set is great, allowing multiple scenes to occur simultaneously. Thanks Casey Mraz (who also helped out with music). All the other technical aspects are also strong, from stage management (Matthew Lee) to lighting (John Conner) and costumes (Emily McVey Lee). Likewise with choreography (Kimberly White) and fight choreography (Bill Walters).
Hats off for casting. Joe Alberti (a new UNM theater arts faculty member) is strong as Stanleya challenging role given the blend of brutality and tenderness. Menendez does well with the difficult job of making sure Stella is more than just a victim. Montgomery oozes with the sensuality necessary for Blanche. And Hansen delivers well the long-suffering, manipulative Ma.
That said, this is the first production of Vessels. There are plenty of rough edges with the script and the story overall. Much of the roughness is clearly deliberate, but some thematic honing would help lift the play out of its noisiness and give it a stronger dramatic punch.
There are a number of directions you can take with the Streetcar story: the always-crumbling South in the face of emerging industrialism, an examination of the underbelly of sadomasochistic relationships, a look at the endless, irreconcilable power struggle between the sexes. While there is a dash of each in Vessels, I didn't see one clear theme emerge. Also, the slapstick at the end undermines the drama that runs dark and bloody through the first act. I would love to see later iterations of this play. After all, Tony Kushner wrote and rewrote Angels in America through numerous production over four years before it became his masterpiece.
Vessels - A Modern Retelling of A Streetcar Named Desire, written by Kevin R. Elder and directed by Kent Kirkpatrick, is produced by the Tricklock Company and plays at UNM's Theater X in the basement of the Fine Arts Center through December 4. Performances are Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, and Sunday at 2 pm. General admission is $15. Senior and student tickets are $10, $5 student rush five minutes before curtain. For reservations, call UNM box office at 505- 925-5858. For information on the Tricklock Company, call 254-8393 or visit www.tricklock.com.