Oct. 19 2011 12:00 AM

MSU’s ‘Streetcar’ takes you on a thrilling ride through a masterpiece


“A Streetcar Named Desire?” Yeah, saw the movie. Marlon Brando and Vivian Leigh were great.

Think I saw the play, too — maybe in high school. That’s
where Stanley does that “Stella” thing and there’s the bit about that
crazy Blanche and the “kindness of strangers,” right? 


What do you do with a 64-year-old play that almost
everyone knows something about? A play that’s been described as the
best play of the 20th century, that’s won every award imaginable and
that’s had countless adaptations in film, opera, television and ballet?

Not to mention that when it first opened on Broadway on
Dec. 3, 1947, the audience sat in stunned silence before breaking into
a full 30 minutes of applause. 

Yes, what do you do?

Well, if you’re the Michigan State University Department
of Theatre and if you’re the brilliant director Rob Roznowski, you make
it more physical — spectacularly more physical.

You also turn up the volume on the raw emotion, sex and
violence and you use the very youth of your talented student actors to
breathe new life into this story of death, desire and insanity while
never compromising the power and beauty of Tennessee Williams’ words. 

You also throw in a spectacular set authentically
featuring that famous New Orleans apartment, the bathtub, the
neighbors’ apartment, the street and houses below and a catwalk where
appear the ghosts of Blanche’s past — all this visible to the audience
at all times.

You also add gorgeous, attention-to-detail costumes,
lighting and sound that enhance the story line, and a stunning New
Orleans “jazz funeral” procession that adds splendor and drama to a
production already rich in both of those elements.

Christina Traister, an MSU assistant professor of acting
and voice, plays Blanche with more strength and anger than one might
expect in such a fragile and delusional character. Blanche is desperate
and destitute, hiding a sordid past and living in a fantasy world, but
Traister gives her a seemingly inexhaustible will to survive.

In the end, however, she makes it clear that Blanche has lost her grip on reality.

In a new theater department experiment, Traister is the
first MSU faculty member to be cast in a student production. This could
easily have failed, but here teacher and students work seamlessly

This is particularly true of Traister’s scenes with
Curran Jacobs as Stanley. Their conflict is at the center of this play
and their interactions are nerve-shattering to watch. Jacobs looks the
part. He is handsome, he is muscular, he has animal magnetism.
Rosnowski has his Stanley almost constantly in motion, and Jacobs leaps
about like a gold medal gymnast.

His characterization of Stanley is believably sex-driven,
brutish and violent. In the end, the totality of his “deliberate
cruelty” to others is not forgivable. And Jacobs can be assured that
his agonized version of the famous “S-t-e-l-l-a” scene is no imitation
of Brando or anybody else.  It’s all his own, and memorably so.

Traister and Jacobs are also the fight directors for this production.  Choreographed with the precision of professional modern dance, the fight scenes are both frightening and beautiful to watch.

Graduate student Emily Young, an accomplished actor,
gives a consistently natural performance as Stella, Blanche’s younger
sister. Despite her compassion for Blanche, Stella’s lust and love for
Stanley ultimately prevent her from helping her sister and escaping her
own hard life.

Nicholas Dressel is appealing as the awkward Mitch, Stanley’s poker buddy and Blanche’s would-be suitor.  His theatrical affect of holding his arms stiffly close to the body tells the story:  He is as lost and lonely as Blanche.

In smaller roles, the always fabulous Leslie Hull is once
again excellent as the neighbor Eunice, careful not to steal scenes
from actor partner Mieko the cat.

And when she’s on stage, you can’t take your eyes off
Carmen Zavala, menacing as the Mexican Woman delivering her message of
death (“flores para los muertos”) in the guise of flowers.

‘A Streetcar Named Desire’

Michigan State University

Pasant Theatre

Through Oct. 23

8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays

$15 adults; $10 students