Friday, March 16, 2018

African-American Shakespeare Company Brings New Light to Streetcar Named Desire

A Streetcar Named Desire

African-American Shakespeare Company 

Directed by: L. Peter Callender

Marine's Memorial Theater
609 Sutter St
San Francisco, CA

Last performances
Saturday, March 17 at 8pm
Sunday, March 18 at 3pm
Stella (Santoya Fields) and Stanley (Khary Moye)

Reviewed by Christine Okon

Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire is a pressure cooker of human emotions  that range from rage to passion, jealousy to loyalty, dark shame to glaring honesty and more. Director Peter Callendar coaxes the versatile actors of the African-American Shakespeare Company  actors to dive fearlessly into the shadowy and steamy soul of this play and resurface in a beautiful catharsis.

The characters are pitched together in a muggy closeness in a tiny and cramped New Orleans apartment where live Stanley Kowalski and his wife Stella in their domestic sensual bliss which is soon disrupted.

Stanley, a strong, hardworking ordinary guy (solidly played by Khary Moye), reveres the bond of brothers that are his poker buddies and regards his home, as Huey Long suggested, as his castle where he is the king. Stella is his steadfast and open-armed wife (given great presence by Santoya Fields), loving her life with Stanley and a grounding force to his volatile temper.

When Stella’s sister Blanche DuBois (the ethereally beautiful yet fragile Jemier Jenkins) enters the scene in a crisp and glamorous white dress and hat, she is as out of place as an orchid in a back alley. Blanche projects herself as a delicate southern belle, but we soon learn the dark and tangled roots that comprise her past. Jenkins brings a delicately nuanced desperation to Blanche who clings to the image she wishes to project, and protect, to keep at bay the. terror of confronting her own reality. Blanche is practiced in the southern playbook of manners and gentility, but she wears them like a mask, a mask she desperately clings to because the truth is too painful.

The subtle but palpable tension between Blanche and Stanley begins to simmer in the first act, with Stanley being annoyed as Blanch e’s sense of entitlement and superiority that threaten his stance and personhood. There ensues a battle of wits, with Blanche desperately trying to maintain the veneer that Stanley increasingly chips away at in his pursuit of what he thinks is the truth. But Stanley’s truth is one of force, like that of prying open a rose bud before it has bloomed to find out what it’s made of. Blanche has her own truth, the magic and grace of beauty, delicacy, and gentility that, as phony as it seems, is the only thing keeping her from the depths of darkness and death.

Williams’ characters must navigate the subtle dichotomies of gentility and brutality, the difference between seeing life in the warm light of a festive lantern or the harsh glare of a bare bulb that hangs almost ominously over the kitchen table. Especially noteworthy is Fred Pitts as Mitch, the “decent” guy who is drawn to Blanche before he eventually sees her in the harsh light.

Callender has taken a bold and original move to present this Williams play with black actors and somehow raise it above the “southerness” to make it universal.

The end of the play is sad as we witness Blanche having disintegrated in her terror and confusion, overwhelmed by the dark evidence of her reality that Stanley managed to unearth. She is cornered like an animal, panicked by the hostile handlers who do not speak her language or understand her, until she is approached by the kind doctor (Nathaniel Andalis) who extends his hand in gracious invitation to come to take her away. It would have been good to have the doctor’s gestures exaggerated in hyperbolic southern gentility, a dance that Blanche has done many times to make her acceptance even more convincing.

This show is ending too soon, with March 18 being the last performance. Try to see it if you can.

A Streetcar Named Desire

Blanche DuBois: Jemier Jenkins
Stanley Kowalski: Khary Moye
Stella Kowalski: Santoya Fields
Mitch: Fred Pitts
Eunice: Kim Saunders
Steve: ShawnJ West
Pablo: Jarrett Holley
Doctor / Ensemble: Nathaniel Andalis
Neighbor / Nurse: Jan Hunter

Director — L. Peter Callender
Production Manager — Leontyne Mbele-Mbong
Stage Manager — Apollonia
Set Designer — Kevin August Landesman
Lighting Designer — Kevin Myrick
Sound Designer — Everett Elton Bradman
Costume & Prop Designer — Rachael Heiman

Monday, February 19, 2018

No Ordinary Dame: Jill Vice and A Fatal Step

A Fatal Step

The Marsh Theatre -  San Francisco

Written and performed by Jill Vice
Directed by Mark Kenward
Developed with David Ford
January 18-April 29, 2018

Jill Vice (photo: John Orvis)
A Fatal Step is a fun heist of familiar Film Noir tropes: the dangerous dame, the good Joe, and six other characters that tell the story of a woman trying to hold on to her man, except the tables are turned and expectations are flipped like Blackjack cards in a smoky casino. Written and performed by Jill Vice, A Fatal Step is about a woman finding her true power and discovering what she really wants, overcoming unexpected circumstances.
Jill Vice (photo: John Orvis)

Vice is a master of eight different characters, with eight different voices and mannerisms that she engages in fast-paced dialog, so convincing that you can visualize them all, from the Bogart-infused idealistic podiatrist husband to the mousy good girl who threatens to steal him away to the bedridden mother appropriately named Mona, because that’s what she does, to the smart-ass Lyft driver, and others. It’s an ingenious and fun device to have the setting be contemporary but threaded with 40’s film noir patter and drama. Vice is a one-woman character machine, bringing the story to life in practiced perfection.

Jill Vice and Eddie Muller, the "Czar of Noir" (photo: Bill Selby)  
After the February 8 show was a talk back with Jill Vice and Eddie Muller, the “Czar of Noir” who explained the essence of Film Noir, where usually the tables are turned on characters, and where good intentions don’t lead to expected good endings. There’s a darkness that’s ripe for mining, and this is what Vice does with A Fatal Step. Her “femme fatale” is really an everywoman who’s just trying to lay her claim on the world, is thwarted, but manages to come out victorious. A Fatal Step is a night of well-crafted, well-directed and polished theater. It’s playing only on Thursday and Saturdays at the Marsh San Francisco until April 29, so catch it while you can.