Star’s role derails Streetcar classic

Otake's Blanche comes on too strong in flawed Ninagawa production


Demons inhabit the live-performance stage. Nobody can judge the success of a production until after the curtain has risen and fallen. This is what gives drama — and musical and dance performances — their peculiar zest. And when the director of a production is a titan of the international theater world, expectations run especially high.

Yukio Ninagawa’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” was in the spotlight long before the curtain first went up at the Bunkamura Theater Cocoon in Shibuya. Anticipation was aroused not simply by Ninagawa’s involvement, but by the encounter between this cutting-edge Japanese director and one of America’s most popular dramatists, Tennessee Williams.

When I asked Ninagawa — best known for his interpretations of Shakespeare’s tragedies, often transferred to a Japanese setting — about his approach to this production, he said he had aimed for complete realism. Toward this, he visited New Orleans, the setting of “Streetcar.” And he has superbly portrayed its social milieu on the stage of the Theater Cocoon.

Even the stage set, the Deep South-style apartment of Stella and Stanley, is spot-on. Its double-door entrance and high, shuttered windows are appropriate to the humid climate of the Mississippi delta, and the detail continues with a cast-iron fire escape running to the apartments above.

But as might be expected, there’s more than a simple faithful reconstruction in the set design. The acting area expands beyond the stage, effectively including the entire theater. This works well on many levels, drawing the audience into the drama and also symbolizing the wide ambitions and questing mental state of its heroine, Blanche DuBois.

“A Streetcar Named Desire” (1947) followed Williams’ first Broadway hit, “A Glass Menagerie,” two years before. The drama won him a Pulitzer Prize and sealed his reputation as as a dramatist to be reckoned with. Worldwide acclaim came soon after, with Elia Kazan’s 1951 film version, starring Marlon Brando as Stanley and Vivien Leigh as an unmissable Blanche.

The drama charts Blanche’s gradual inner disintegration, a decline akin to (and as inevitable as) that of a sand castle on a beach.

The play opens as Blanche takes a streetcar called “Desire,” then changes at a station called “Grave” before arriving at “Heaven.” This is her terminal station, the home of her sister and troubled brother-in-law, Stanley.

We learn that Blanche has lost her family plantation, Belle Reve (“Beautiful Dream”), and has been exiled from her hometown of Laurel, Miss., for seducing a student. She arrives weighed down by her past, but even here, in Stella’s apartment, Stanley starts to pull her apart with his hostility. There is no space here for Blanche to remake herself, and no place for her in the real world either. Instead she retreats into a world, increasingly feeble, of her own pathetic fantasy.

With such a character-driven play, casting is central. Ninagawa gave the role of Stanley Kowalski to Shinichi Tsutsumi, and he more than matches expectations. Tsutsumi not only captures Stanley’s rough machismo, but also brings out his chivalrous and blunt-yet-sensitive side, making Stanley’s intolerance of Blanche’s childish lies and bravado easy to understand. Contrary to stereotypes of the uneducated man, Tsutsumi plays the character as a brittle and sensitive underdog in American society.

The supporting actors — Musaka Naomasa as Stanley’s best friend Mitch, Shinobu Terashima as Stella and the smaller roles of neighbors, a doctor and a nurse — also performed brilliantly. Ninagawa allowed each to set out their character’s history and personality to great effect.

But finally we come back to the central part of Blanche DuBois, played by Shinobu Otake. From the moment her participation was announced, the question of how Otake would tackle this role was the main focus of interest. As the most in-demand actress in Japan these days, and a regular prizewinner across the board, Otake’s Blanche was the production’s biggest selling point.

What we got was a Blanche quite unlike her stage and screen predecessors. This was not a fragile, neurotic woman, unable to cope with life. Instead, the lingering impression as the curtain came down was of a cunning woman supremely confident in her femininity. In part, this may have been due to Otake’s appearance — her baby face and rouged cheeks made her appear younger than her younger sister, Stella.

This new-style Blanche — pretending to be innocent, but quite a toughie underneath — upsets the whole received reading of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Far from reaching her last station (“Heaven”), it seems in Otake’s interpretation that Blanche has only just begun — she busily provokes Stanley, plots to seduce Mitch and after that . . . who knows?

Still fresh in the mind is Otake’s recent fine performance as Chieko, a woman having a mental breakdown, in Hideki Noda’s production of “Urikotoba.” In that, she brilliantly captured the pitifulness and the cunning of Chieko as she tipped over the edge into madness. Here, though, Otake’s reading of Blanche seems to contradict the very plot itself.

As a result, this production is sadly lacking as an interpretation of Williams’ drama. I would go so far as to say that even a director as renowned as Ninagawa should choose wisely, whether to follow an orthodox interpretation or to read a play in an utterly new way. To offer a faithful rendering of a drama, while giving a great actress license to behave in so cavalier a fashion with its central role (one of modern theater’s most celebrated) should not be confused with innovative directorial insight.

To be sure, there are demons living on even the most star-studded stages.