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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

A Streetcar Named Desire and
Rollin' on The T.O.B.A.

Actors showcase their talents in gripping A Streetcar Named Desire

When talented young actors make the leap to Equity, the union forbids them to work for next to nothing, as they had done in small theater productions. Small theaters lose star actors, because they cannot pay Equity rates. And actors are cut-off from working with former colleagues. So when a group of Equity actors mount a production that showcases their own and their non-Equity colleagues talents, pay attention.

Nine actors, four of them Equity, all with ties to director Zach Curtis' Fifty Foot Penguin Theatre, have come together under Curtis' direction to stage an emotionally spellbinding A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee William's Pulitzer Prize-winning play. I became so enmeshed in the spiraling tragedy of Blanche DuBois' life that I forgot to take notes - always a good sign when reviewing.

Set at the end of World War II in the seedy French Quarter of New Orleans, Streetcar pits the fading grace of the old American South, represented by Blanche DuBois, against the ruthless vigor of a new America, Stanley Kowalski.

Blanche arrives unannounced to stay with her younger sister Stella and her rough-neck husband, Stanley Kowalski. Blanche has lost the family plantation, and Stella is her only relation. Blanche maintains the illusion of her Southern aristocrat past, but pregnant Stella has chosen the thrill of Stanley's raw, blue-collar sexuality. Stanley sums Blanche up immediately. He has no time for her superior airs, and he senses that she is both repulsed and attracted by his animal virility. He also resents her presence in the two-room apartment and his wife's divided attention. With calculated cruelty, he sets about destroying vulnerable Blanche.

Curtis directed Stacia Rice as Maggie in a scorching Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 2002 and, here in Streetcar as Blanche, Rice excels again. Her Blanche is beautiful, slender as a twig of dogwood and just as brittle. She teeters on an edge of desperation and loneliness. A Southern belle, whose response to a man is to coquette, she sustains herself by creating an illusion of grace. Stanley, played with brute force by Steve Swere, rips away her illusion to reveal the truth of her past. His final assault snaps her like a twig.

Swere's Stanley is a raw physical force on stage. He watches Blanche with the cold eyes of a predator. He breaches people's boundaries, throws things, slaps his wife around and bellows orders to his friends. His entrances often coincide with the roar of a passing train, and the air seems to shift in his wake.

Where Blanche is fragile, Carolyn Pool's Stella radiates health and a lust for her husband's love-making. Pool taps Stella's impossible dilemma; she is torn between loyalty for her needy sister and for her domineering husband, even as her sister's presence begins to expose an unwelcome view of Stanley.

Stanley's friend Mitch falls for Blanche. Played by tall Chris Carlson, Mitch is an ordinary but good man, compassionate and sensitive. If Stanley had not interfered, he and Blanche might have found happiness. Carla Reck, Carson Lee, André Samples, Josh Jabas and Julie Anne Nevill round out this able ensemble.

Michael Hoover's economic, three-area set of wood lathe looks suitably dilapidated, and he furnishes it with period props, like an old metal kitchen cupboard and an early radio. Blanche's glamorous costumes belong to the era of silent movies, and costumer Emily Heaney nicely contrasts the clothes from her plantation past with the cheaper dresses of the play's present.

I missed a sense of the stifling heat of a New Orleans summer in this Streetcar, but I felt its tragedy in my heart's core.

A Streetcar Named Desire May 27 - June 13, 2005. Thursdays - Sundays 7:30 p.m. Suggested donation, $15:00. Actors Equity Showcase at Theater Garage, 711, West Franklin Avenue, Minneapolis. Call 612-875-8778.


Penumbra's Rollin' on The T.O.B.A. snapshots a tough slice of theater history

Rollin' on the T.O.B.A.
Yolande Bruce
On Lance Brockman's period theater set, complete with a shabby proscenium arch and flashing lights, a grand curtain and old-fashioned footlights, Rollin' on The T.O.B.A. takes audiences on the black vaudeville circuit of the roaring '20s. Ronald "Smokey" Stevens and Jaye Stewarts' Rollin' offers a slice of little-known, pioneer theater history and an entertaining, if sad, glimpse into the tribulations of black artists, who succeeded in spite of exploitation and Jim Crow laws.

Not that the spirit of the piece is sad; rather, it's wry, upbeat and determined. Vaudeville star Bertha Mae Little (Yolanda Bruce) helps to get her two friends, comedians Stewart and Steve (Benny Cannon and T. Mychael Rambo) onto the Theater Owners' Booking Agency (T.O.B.A.'s) performance circuit. The black artists called the acronym "Tough on Black Artists," and the play follows them as they ride cramped, segregated trains below the Mason Dixon Line to perform varied routines on different stages across the country. Sometimes they go hungry because they cannot be served food from an all-white dining car and once they get bilked by a theater manager, who steals the ticket take.

Sanford Moore's superb jazz piano playing accompanies the action throughout.

Between vignettes, the performers talk and sing about their lives on the circuit in the catchy "Rollin' On The T.O.B.A.," and Bruce sings a touching "Travelin' Blues," about loneliness. As they travel, a map projected onto a lowered screen shows the grueling routes the agency sets up for the artists.

Bertha Mae goes off to Chicago and the two men set off for Athens, Georgia. On stage, they ham it up in vignettes as stupid, if harmless negroes, the stereotype that the culture had taught people to expect of colored folk. Some of these routines feel a bit tired, which is perhaps less a reflection on performance than on changed audience awareness.

The most affecting vignettes have intrinsic artistic value. Tall, loose-limbed Cannon affects the shambling type with ease, although the quick intelligence in his eyes belies the personas he portrays. His strongest solo piece is "Huggin' and Chalkin,'" in which he courts a woman so deliciously big and wide that he can't see another man courting her from the far side; then he has to maneuver his imaginary love off stage ...

Both Cannon and Rambo sing well, and they play off each other nicely in pieces together. Rambo's voice is particularly rich and strong, and he does a creditable tap routine, learned especially for this show.

Clever and yet discomforting is Rambo's mime as a card player; a light-skinned man, he comes on stage dressed in minstrel tails, top hat, white gloves and in black-face, with enormous white lips. His performance is poignant and funny - a black man imitating a white man, imitating a black man. He closes the piece with a song called "Nobody," which tells how it feels to be seen as nothing and to ask for nothing. He encourages the audience to sing the song's refrain with him, and for a moment his hurt is ours, too.

Attractive Bruce as Bertha Mae has more presence after the intermission. In Andre Harrington's glamorous costumes, she sings and dances with dignified sass, her voice sweet and subtle in the intimate Penumbra space but lacking in volume. The bluesy song "Trouble in Mind" shows off her vocalization to particular advantage.

This interesting show ends with a quote from Bert Williams that says it all: "It's no disgrace to be a negro, but it's terribly inconvenient."

Rollin' on The T.O.B.A. May 27 - July 3, 2005. Thursdays and Sundays 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays 8:00 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays 2:00 p.m. Tickets: $30 - $55. Penumbra Theatre, 270, North Kent Street, St. Paul. Call 651-290-8686 ext. 250, or www.penumbratheatre.org.


Photo: Ann Marsden


- Elizabeth Weir



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