By ALAN SMASON
Ever since the words “novel coronavirus” began to make the news circuits and theaters began what was hoped to be a relatively short downtime, the ingenuity of resourceful and creative producers and protective unions began to put on their thinking caps.
With an eye towards safety, but a tentative and calculated fiduciary responsibility to backers and boards charged with keeping their companies afloat, new rules were issued. Social distancing became de rigeur. Temperatures were to be taken of audiences, cast members and technical staffs and the wearing of masks by everyone was decreed a necessity.
The Williamstown Theatre Festival decided to go another way. If the safest kinds of gatherings were virtual in nature, why not seek out inventive ways to allow actors to ply their crafts and to keep festival attendees safe?
With an impressive lineup already announced, the festival decided to bank its entire season on an app – Audible, the leading creator and provider of premium audio storytelling owned by Amazon. While the visual aspects would require imagination on the part of the listener, the festival producers could retain the vaunted cast members and make each production somewhat more intimate in scale with music and sound effects incorporated into the finished product.
Festival ticket holders would be given access to all seven of the productions, which would eliminate the need to take extraordinary safety measures or even to travel to a venue. Williamstown Theatre Festival artistic director Mandy Greenfield and Audible artistic producer Kate Navin announced the partnership and immediately got to work.
The first of their realized joint productions is Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire with six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald in the leading and pivotal role of Blanche DuBois and 2020 Tony nominee Robert O’Hara (Slave Play) as the director.
More than a podcast, this is a truly finished production that incorporates sound design to elevate the individual performances. Due to the exigencies of this art form, the spoken dialogue must be free flowing; there is no opportunity to place dramatic pauses between words or passages that might accentuate an interpretation of the playwright’s words. Dialogue must be rapid or stretched in such a way that it doesn’t appear the actors are unsure of their lines.
Having no visual cues is another limitation for the art form. For example, were Blanche to roll her eyes or give a plaintive look, we would not have a clue.
Some of the sound effect choices actually do make up for the lack of visual cues, but to have an artist of McDonald’s stature able to take on the role meant a compromise had to be made. Thankfully, as one might expect, she delivers a gritty and realistic portrait of Blanche.
No longer is Blanche a disgraced doyenne of polite and privileged White Mississippi salon society. Her dialect is more derivative of downtrodden and disadvantaged Black Mississippians struggling to find an unattainable American dream prior to the Civil Rights movement. It makes for a very interesting choice and one that Williams himself might have approved were he alive today in the wake of this summer’s Black Lives Matter movement protests.
The dynamic Ariel Shafir (“What Happens in Vegas”) creates the necessary tension in the role of the uncouth Stanley Kowalski. His depiction as an uncultured brute is emphasized in key scenes with jungle grunts of simian creatures in the background. Meanwhile, Carla Gugino (“Night at the Museum”) turns in a beautifully measured performance in counterpoint to both Shafir as his starry-eyed wife Stella and to McDonald as Blanche’s sister.
Among the cast of other featured characters is Sullivan Jones, whose performance as Harold Mitchell goes toe to toe with McDonald as a friend of Stanley’s whom she uses to her own ends.
A shout out should be given to all those on the creative team, especially to dialect coaches Dawn-Elin Fraser and Deborah Hecht and sound designer Lindsay Jones.
A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams stars Audra McDonald, Ariel Shafir and Carla Gugino and is directed by Robert O’Hara. It is available for subscribers on the Audible application through the Williamstown Theater Festival. For more information, click here.