Forget realism — there’s magic in Ubuntu Theater Project’s ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’

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Ubuntu Theater Project/Courtesy

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Entering the humble space of The Alice Collective in Oakland, the first word that comes to mind is “intimacy.” It’s minutes before the show, and the actors are seen stretching, their voices dropping to the lowest decibel level and accelerating toward the highest, their heads turning side to side, up and down. They smile at the audience as each member passes by and stops to sit a few meters away from the unelevated stage. The lights dim as the audience instinctively turns off its phones so as to not distract the actors, who are already performing right in front of them.

“A Streetcar Named Desire” by Tennessee Williams is incredibly impactful in all its forms — as a written play, as a movie with Marlon Brando’s iconic, beautiful “STELLAAA” and, of course, as a theater performance. In this vein, the Ubuntu Theater Project’s production does not disappoint.

It is evident that the actors embraced every dimension of their characters, ensuring that the play maintained a balance between thrills and terrors. Lisa Ramirez, Ubuntu’s associate artistic director, plays Blanche DuBois, embodying the pompous, dramatic character of a woman who cares far too much about her appearance and about finding a man to depend upon. Sarita Ocón portrays her sister Stella Kowalski; the dynamic between the two sisters as depicted by Ocón and Ramirez is strikingly, wonderfully complex.

The exceptional Ogie Zulueta plays Stanley Kowalski, a character whose ignorance is almost humorous and whose desire to establish his masculinity results in unwarranted aggressiveness. Stanley is a particularly intricate character, and for Zulueta to have mastered the sudden peaking of his voice mid-sentence and the unexpected violence with which he faces the women he encounters is truly remarkable. Zulueta takes complete advantage of the space around him, conquering it as his and only his, persistently pacing from one side of the house to the other and spewing his crumpled beer cans around the floor.

The entire space that The Alice Collective offered was ideal for this play, which is almost entirely set within the walls of the Kowalski household. A single, white curtain separates the two rooms of the house. It allows the audience a view of what takes place behind the curtain as well as Blanche’s room. The audience feels threatened and uncomfortable when Blanche’s sheet-thin privacy is constantly invaded by Stanley, and enchanted when she weaves in and out of the curtain as she dances to the songs on the radio with her sister, Stella. The minimalist, effective set design forces the audience to feel as though it’s watching the members of the household from within the house, solidifying the characters’ emotions and actions as wholly palpable.

Music forms a vital part of Williams’ play, and the Ubuntu Theater Project most definitely recognizes this. The play opens with Regina Morones, who plays a variety of different characters, including the chanteuse, the young collector with whom Blanche flirts, the Mexican funeral flower vendor and the nurse of the play’s final moments. She descends from the top of a flight of stairs that lead to nowhere at one end of the performance space, singing beautifully, harrowingly. There is no movement on the center space apart from the slow steps of Morones, allowing her voice to ring from all corners of the enclosed space without any distraction.

Simone Finney/Courtesy

Simone Finney/Courtesy

Director Emilie Whelan further takes advantage of this confined space with regards to the music that plays in Blanche’s mind whenever she talks or thinks about Allan Grey. Allan, who is constantly referenced throughout the play, was the man Blanche married as a young girl who shot himself after she found him in bed with another man. Offstage diegetic sound such as the Varsouviana Polka, which is the tune Allan and Blanche danced to moments before his demise, fades in and out in these instances without the audience even noticing, as do songs such as “It’s Only A Paper Moon,” which Blanche sings when she obsessively bathes.

Every aspect of the Ubuntu Theater Project’s production was stunning and incredibly performed. The actors embodied their characters’ many complexities with seeming ease, engaging the audience for the entire 2 hours and 25 minutes. Ubuntu was founded on the simple premise of making groundbreaking theater accessible to all socioeconomic backgrounds, and its production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” was no exception. This play isn’t one to miss.

“A Streetcar Named Desire” will run through Feb. 25 at The Alice Collective.

Contact Anoushka Agrawal at [email protected].