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Psycho Streetcar
By Marvin Carlson

Endstation Amerika
Adapted from A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams
Volksbühne Berlin, Germany
Box office: 49-30-247-6772


Berlin's leading director, Frank Castorf, is well-known for his unconventional, indeed iconoclastic productions of classic texts, and his current version of Tennessee Williams's Streetcar Named Desire is very much a hallmark Castorf interpretation, so much so that the Williams estate refused him permission to present the play under its normal German title, Endstation Sehnsucht. It appears instead as Endstation Amerika, an "adaptation" of the Williams work. Anyone familiar with Williams will recognize the general structure of the plot, but as with most of Castorf's work, the production is less an adaptation than a highly theatrical meditation upon selected themes, images, and associations of the work (and of its famous screen adaptation with Marlon Brando, film and popular culture always having a particular attraction for Castorf).

Perhaps nothing indicates more clearly Castorf's simultaneous consciousness of and departure from the original text than his unusual use of supertitles. The production is for the most part in German (although there are the usual Castorf touches of other languages-Blanche and Stella when they wish to exclude Stanley talk in French, and occasional pop songs are rendered in English). But the supertitles are almost entirely in English, and primarily serve a single purpose, to provide selections from Williams's extensive stage directions, which are universally ignored by the production itself. The elaborate detail of Williams's evocative stage is spelled out in a ribbon text above the stage as the production opens, but what is actually seen is very different: essentially two grim connected rooms, the larger on the right a living room with an inset kitchen space separated from the rest by a bar. The smaller area on the left has a bed against the far left wall, and a door, and somewhat strangely, a window into an upstage bath. Stranger still, there is a TV monitor next to the window that provides another view of the bathroom. Castorf has used television extensively in other recent productions to show spaces otherwise invisible to the audience.

The stage directions thus create a kind of parallel world. The characters do not wear the costumes they describe nor do they perform the actions they suggest. The directions for Scene 2, for example, note that "Stanley enters the kitchen from outside, leaving the door open," while below them, on the stage, Stanley is moving about, already in the room, not relating to the door at all. Later in the play, however, the previously ignored supertitles take on a terrible relevance. In Scene 7 when Stanley tells Stella what he has learned about Blanche's reputation, these lines are not delivered by the actor but are presented in the supertitles, to which Stanley calls Stella's attention. Later he indicates them also to Eunice and Steve, and finally to Blanche herself.

Henry Hübchen plays Stanley with none of the physical dynamism of Brando. He is heavy and crude, and although he often appears in his undershirt, his belly hangs out from beneath it except when he makes a real effort to pull it in. Still Polish, he is now a former member of Solidarity, now totally disillusioned by the grim world of late capitalism, in which he has a job selling chewing gum. At one point, in physical realization of Blanche's description of him as an ape, he enters in a full gorilla costume, carrying a huge advertising model of a package of Wrigley's Spearmint. Although Castorf retains some lines from minor characters, such as the highly symbolic and useful "Flores para los muertos," the cast is in fact reduced to the principals: Stella and Stanley, Blanche and Mitch, Eunice and Steve. Each of these, like Stanley, draws heavily upon a variety of references from popular culture, especially American pop culture, and Castorf sees them as turbulent vortices of emotion, equally likely to fly suddenly into an inexplicable rage or revert to some child-like entertainment such as bouncing wildly on the bed.

A particularly theatrical example of this is Mitch (Bernhard Schütz) whose concern about his off-stage mother provides just the sort of opening for psychological and pop culture comment that Castorf delights in. The love scene between Blanche and Mitch develops rapidly, with Mitch retiring into the bathroom, appearing briefly nude on the TV (much to Blanche's delight) before emerging wrapped in a towel so that Blanche can check out his musculature on the nearby bed. When the subject of his mother arises, however, Mitch abruptly leaves and Blanche retires into the bathroom. A moment later Mitch re-enters and we are suddenly plunged into that American pop culture locus classicus of mother-fixation, Hitchcock's Psycho. Mitch, as Anthony Perkins, rolls in a wheelchair with a dark bundled body in it surmounted by a grinning skull. He then goes through the reported conversation with his mother about Blanche, speaking both parts himself, his mother's lines in a thin parodic ventriloquist style. Working himself into a frenzy, he seizes a large knife from the kitchen and rushes to the bathroom where Blanche is and frantically stabs through the shower curtain. At first it appears that the famous shower scene in Psycho is being literally re-enacted (as it is in another current Berlin experimental production, Stefan Pollesch's Insourcing des Zuhause at the Volksbühne's black box, the Prater). In fact, after the furious Mitch leaves, Blanche emerges from a corner of the bathroom unseen by the TV camera and throws herself exhausted on the bed.

The production moves constantly between moments of naturalism, quotations from other work like the Psycho scene, theatrical set pieces, and metatheatical sequences such as the characters' open acknowledgment of the supertitles. Often several of these operate simultaneously, as in the opening sequence. The action opens with Steve (Fabian Hinrichs) seated on a bar stool in front of the bar down right, playing on a guitar in a heavy red light, suggesting a nightclub entertainer, and singing (in English) "It's such a perfect day," a song that will underline much of the opening scene. As he plays and sings, the heavily colored lighting keeps changing, red to yellow, blue, and back to red. Behind him Stella (Kathrin Angerer), in a doll-like floral dress (her first lines are given in a girlish, almost babyish intonation) and Eunice (Brigitte Cuvelier), dressed in a flowing purple tunic, are breaking eggs into a dish on the sink counter upstage of the bar. The action suggests naturalism, and indeed Castorf employs an effect famously used by the great American naturalist David Belasco, preparing food on stage that can be smelled in the audience, except that here the eggs are apparently bad, and a highly disagreeable sulphurous odor drifts out into the house. Morever, the naturalistic action is highly stylized, so that each egg is broken in rhythm and thrown into the bowl with a shrill, repeated cry. The food preparation becomes a kind of ritualized act.

Steve's opening song is a good example of how Castorf has brought Williams's offstage music into the center of the action and infused it with his particular metatheatrics. So many scenes are interrupted by or accompanied by musical numbers that the production almost has the feel of musical theatre. Steve's song continues through most of the opening scene and after Blanche arrives she sits on one of the bar stools next to him and sings along while Stella and Eunice are seen on the video frantically scrubbing down the bathroom walls, apparently in honor of the new guest. Whatever impression of domestic elegance this might create is soon shattered by the appearance of Stanley, however, whose first action upon arriving home is to dump the dirty clothes from his duffel bag into the toilet for Stella to retrieve.

During the poker scenes, the men sing the song "Oh, Baby, Baby" together in the kitchen, while the women sing in counterpoint on the bathroom TV. The poker scene, it might be noted, is introduced by a sequence in which the men engage in an increasingly elaborate display of shuffling, leading to snapping cards violently across the stage at the women, and then, the men lined up at the footlights, into the audience.

At the end of the poker scene, when Stanley attacks Stella and she flees upstairs, his crying out to her and her cautious return are underscored in Williams by the usual off-stage blues music and "low-clarinet moans." In Castorf's production, Stella takes refuge in the bathroom and Stanley, left alone on stage, cries out to her image, ineffectively, on the TV monitor. He then goes offstage and returns with a guitar, to sing a sentimental "Stella, O Stella, ich liebe dich." As he sings, Steven and Mitch return, Steve with a double bass and Mitch with a trombone, and they join enthusiastically in the number. Stella is drawn out of the bath by this display and joins in herself, singing and bouncing on the bed. The spirit is so great that it is only with great difficulty that the others finally manage to get Mitch to stop playing so that the scene can conclude. The most striking and memorable moments of the production combine music in this way with innovative, unexpected, and highly theatrical actions.

The rape is scene is surprisingly underplayed, with Stanley appearing, rather incongruously, in red silk pajamas and sitting and speaking quietly next to Blanche on the bed as the lights fade. The end of the previous scene, showing the breakup of Blanche and Mitch, on the contrary, is spectacularly performed. The furious Mitch carries a tall stack of plates from the kitchen to center stage and begins methodically smashing them until he stands in a pile of shards. He then breaks into the lyrics of "American Pie," with an increasingly loud offstage musical accompaniment. As he sings, the entire stage, which has never moved up to this point, begins slowly tilting upward and away from the audience. As we hear the broken crockery sliding and crashing down the slope behind him, Mitch, still singing, balances on the front of the stage and is lifted higher and higher, with an overwhelmed Blanche clinging to the edge at his feet and looking up at him.

A repetition of this stunning stage effect ends the production. The Doctor and Matron remain offstage, and Stella, left alone, sits on the bed singing a sentimental song, "When I die." As she sings, all the others return and sit with her, joining in the song. As they sing, the supertitles show the last two or three pages of Williams's stage directions, describing Blanche's departure and the resumption of their usual existence by the others, all actions omitted in this production. As these texts appear and the singing continues, the stage again begins to tilt up. Once more we hear the crashing of elements sliding to the rear, not just crockery this time, but all the furniture on stage. The four actors appear, clinging to the edge of the rising stage, as the final supertitles unroll. As they cling there, far above the audience's heads, the supertitles, which have up to now been in Williams's English, give a single phrase in German which is in fact not in Williams: "The curtain slowly falls." After a moment this phrase blinks off and then appears again. Another moment and it begins blinking on and off rapidly, a clear cue for audience applause, which then tumultuously occurs. However outrageous the production might be for a conservative fan of Williams, its daring and occasionally brilliant reworkings are much to the taste of the Volksbühne audience, who call back the actors again and again with whistles, sustained applause, and cheers.



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