Toronto’s Studio BLR takes Tennessee Williams’ classic A Streetcar Named Desire and pairs it with punk rock and live music for a richly impassioned theatrical performance
I’ve spent quite a bit of time studying the works of Tennessee Williams. What kept me entranced was the way he wrote characters so vastly layered that the unpeeling of which would pit them directly against reality and a built up fantasy would crumble away.
When I learned that Studio BLR would be presenting a punk rock version of A Streetcar Named Desire I was immediately intrigued. Finding out that each performance would feature original music from a different local rock band spoke sweetly to my music geek side. Learning all of this from a friend who would be playing a role solidified my need to attend.
There’s quite a lot going on for this production that begins, first and foremost, with the unusual location. The small audience is asked to gather in Dragon Ally, a dark and ramshackle alleyway next to a corner store. With how fast night falls at this time of year, you approach with a sense of unease.
When the performance begins, you quickly meet the cast. Eunice (Jasmine Bowen) greets you and takes your money before Stella (Mackenzie Gruer) climbs up on the fence and calls out to her husband Stan (Luke Gallo) as he and his buddies Mitch and Steve (Alex Strauss and Eric Kovalevskyy) stagger by. After Stella heads inside, a lost and confused Blanche (Lynne Rafter) approaches having just been dropped off by the Desire streetcar. The southern peach is traumatized by the sub-par area that her dear sister is living in. Heading into her sister’s apartment does nothing to raise her impressions.
The audience is asked to follow – up the steepest, narrowest fire escape staircase with very low hanging platforms to get to the apartment. Using those stairs is a feat in and of itself, making this performance inaccessible to those physically disabled.
The audience sits on cushioned milk crates against the wall of a rather small and grimy apartment. The tag in the title is “A House Show” which is literally what it means – this is actually someone’s living space. There’s writing on the walls, the dishes aren’t done, the floor has seen better days from years before – this is the backdrop for the rest of the story to play out. It’s not pretty, not meant to be, but in the grit and grime lies poetic resonance for the actors to work against.
A Streetcar Named Desire is a story about truths being revealed as fantasies unravel, about how people will do anything they can to maintain even the illusion of happiness. Blanche perceives Stella as having fallen from grace as she lives in squalor – what she hides is her own descent into madness. Stella, pregnant with Stan’s child, seeks him for salvation despite his many drunken rampages – one resulting in a fist to her face.
The energy in this production is raw and saturated. The very small venue makes everything feel cloying and claustrophobic, so heavy is the air that it can be cut through with a knife. When Stan screams at Blanche or strikes Stella, you feel it. When the door slams, you flinch. At times, it’s almost too much to take. A trigger warning – having personally survived abuse, this is not easy to take.
But that’s what gives this performance power, the actors – especially Rafter, who put the show together – chose not to hold back, fill the space with the right amount of tension, rage, adrenaline, aggression, what the story needs at the time. Hats off to the actors for not holding back, for experience and delivering every ounce of fuel that the scene required to give the audience the most visceral reaction.
I was blown away, in particular, by Gallo’s portrayal and the fact that he did scare me with his unbridled fury towards Blanche and Stella. The fact that he didn’t overact during that iconic scream solidified his performance.
The additional benefit of this performance is the inclusion of live music. For this night’s particular show, the live band featured is Love ‘n’ Botto. The poker scene in the original play is replaced with a band practice. It’s supposed to be Stan’s band if only he could be around for the practice and not out drinking.
Love ‘n’ Botto – a guitarist and a drummer drumming on a box he’s sitting on – perform three songs while Stella offers beers for $3 to the audience. The setting up for the band while Stella rummages through the fridge was awkward to watch as it broke away from the story leaving a disconnect. However once the band got into their groove, it worked out. Considering the severe limitations on space, the band did a great job.
A Streetcar Named Desire is long, clocking in at three and a half hours long with one intermission. The seats being only milk crates are not very comfortable at all during that much time. As great as the performance is, your body starts to feel the passage of time. However, I found that to be a small price to pay for a captivating story rich with guttural fervor. Do not miss this show.
- Performances for A Streetcar Named Desire begin in Dragon Ally, the first ally on the northwest corner of College and Dufferin.
- Performance dates are every Thursday, Friday and Saturday until October 5th.
- Tickets are $10 and can be reserved by calling 416 364 4556.
- Seating is limited to 20 per show, be sure to book and reserve your seat in advance.
Photo of Lynne Rafter by Annalise Walmer.