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Austin Actors
Marco Perella

Derailing Streetcar
by Marco Perella

February 2001


The cast of our production of STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE is a little inbred.

The actors playing Stanley and Stella are married. That works as long as they're getting along. But what if some night they're experiencing marital strife, and Stanley is yelling "Stella! Stella!" and she looks down and says "Fuck you, Asshole!"?

Our Stanley is famous for two things:

First of all, he used to be a gymnast and can walk around on his hands for half and hour. He likes to do this in the middle of rehearsals.

Stanley's second claim to fame is his penchant for onstage practical jokes.

I remember an epic moment in a production of THE ODYSSEY. This was a play for children that traveled around to elementary schools.

They're doing the play in the gymnasium of one of these schools and Stanley is playing Ulysses. Stanley is standing at the mast, as the ship, tempest-tossed, struggles through the waves. (They've got a little cardboard ship that the other actors are pretending to row.) Stanley starts improvising lines while exhorting his men to row more fervently and he comes up with this gem:

"Hard on, men! Stroke! Stroke!"

I'm not sure if he followed this with a handstand.

The actress playing Blanche DuBois is living with the director. This is bad. That's because every actress who plays this part, the most famous role in American theatre, goes insane.

Jessica Tandy took to beating up Marlon Brando on stage. Vivian Leigh? Nuff said. Ann Margaret admits that the part nearly drove her over the edge.

Not to flaunt tradition, our Blanche is bonkers. She's gone Method and is hitting the mint juleps for the purpose of character identification. She's a fine actress and is holding it up on stage, but all is not rosy peachy keeno on the homefront.

Our director is subconsciously acting out by devising more and more abusive blocking for his star girlfriend. He's practically got Stanley dragging her around by the hair. Even more worrisome: I think Blanche likes it.

For me, doing STREETCAR is the first time I get to relax all day. I'm playing Steve, the upstairs neighbor, who has almost nothing to do except the poker game. That's good, since my fellow road warrior Jed and I have just returned from a near circumnavigation of the state of Texas in search of media employment. Jed is playing Mitch. Best of all, I get to stop looking cute for corporate America. I put on my grubby costume and color in the space between my eyebrows with satisfaction.

Jed is, like I said, playing Mitch. That's a big part and he's got to keep it together. I'll keep an eye on him; he's looking a bit logy.

As you must remember, STREETCAR is set in New Orleans in the French Quarter. Stanley and Stella live in the bottom apartment of a two-story, under Steve and his wife, Eunice. There's supposed to be an outside staircase as part of the set.

Coincidentally, Center Stage has a staircase right in the middle of the upstage area. It's an old theatre, and because of limited space, the dressing rooms are upstairs, over the stage. Actors who are not onstage can keep track of the play by looking down through cracks in the old wooden floor.

Our set designer incorporates this whole arrangement into the set, making the dressing room double as Steve and Eunice's apartment.

At one point, Stanley and Stella are supposed to listen to Steve and Eunice make love upstairs. Everybody in the dressing room loves this part because they get to watch Eunice and me pant and moan and make bumping noises on the wood floor.

Everybody except Jed. That's because the actress playing Eunice is his brother's fiancée.

Like I said... inbred.

Everything goes well until the poker game fight.

Our stage manager has gotten surly with the men of the cast because we keep destroying the set every night. We've been indulging ourselves by splintering chairs and wrecking the table. We also spill beer and food and cards all over the stage and then drag Stanley through it.

At the end of the fight we're supposed to cool Stanley down in the shower. They've set up a real working shower onstage and we're taking full advantage. All that water mixed with the rest of the junk makes for a satisfying, slimy stage mulch.

Then we get to watch the actresses slide around for the rest of the night.

Our stage manager thinks we should just kind of shove the table to one side and muss up a chair and be done with it. He's tired of gluing the furniture back together after each performance.

We tell him if he wanted a neat, tidy little fight he should have hired wussy actors.

Real men mulch the stage.

Another interesting factor in all of this is the rake.

Our designer has gotten artsy on us and set the stage at a good fifteen-degree angle towards the audience. Improved site-lines, he says. He doesn't have to walk on it.

Also, things tend to roll offstage into the audience.

So here we are having the fight. We've smashed a bunch of stuff, as usual. Jed and I are really into it tonight, probably because we've been trapped in a car all day and need the exercise.

The table has been turned over and all of a sudden one of the beer bottles starts to roll down the stage and into the first row.

This has happened before and we like it. It's somehow hypnotizing. We all stop fighting and watch, stupidly, in a frozen tableau, as the longneck disappears over the edge of the stage with a satisfying crash. The audience laughs. We start fighting again.

Stanley sees another bottle at his feet. He kind of gently nudges it with his foot and it starts rolling downhill. Again we all stop struggling so we can enjoy the spectacle as it obeys the call of gravity and picks up speed on its way to a glassy death.


The audience cheers this time. Cue the fight.

So now we're all looking around for more bottles to satisfy the audience's lust for destruction. As each new missile hurtles downhill, the crowd yells,

"Timber!" and, "Look out below!"

(All except the patrons in the first row, who are busy dodging broken glass.)

It might not be what Tennessee Williams had in mind.

Finally we throw Stanley into the shower and, having thoroughly goobered up the set, retreat up the stairs to the dressing room while he starts yelling for Stella.

We're all chuckling as we dry off. After awhile we dimly perceive that a silence is now engulfing the stage. Eunice looks through the cracks in the floor. She reports that Blanche is walking around down there not saying anything.

"Wait a minute," says Eunice, "Aren't you supposed to be in this scene?"

She's pointing at Jed, who is sitting there with his pants off. With an electric shock of sudden coherence, he squeals, "Oh my God!" and dives down the staircase, trying to get his pants back on as he descends.

After the poker fight, Mitch is supposed to get lovey-dovey with Blanche. Jed has short-circuited and started changing for Act Two.

This has left Blanche with nothing to do but wander around the stage, a lonesome Southern Belle.

Jed comes tumbling down the stairs with his pants around his ankles.

Blanche has been looking languorously out at the audience, and hearing the rumpus, assumes her Mitch has finally decided to appear. She turns and prepares to begin the scene.

But her Mitch is not there. He is hiding behind the stairs, trying to fix his zipper.

The dead air is deafening.

Finally, Jed decides to start the dialogue from behind the stairs, hoping that he'll get his zipper up at some point in the scene.

"Pssttt! ... Miss DuBois!"

Blanche doesn't respond to her invisible suitor so Jed tries to get her attention with a little adlibbing:

"Over here! Under the stairs! I got somethin' I wanna show ya!"

Jed peaks around the corner of the stairs, giving her and the audience a little flash of underpants.

Some days it's all about underpants.

Blanche comes up with a line from the script that has relevance to the present situation:

"I'm terrified!"

Jed thinks they're back on script:

"Ho-ho! There's nothing to be scared of..."

Blanche slightly alters a line:

"But you're not properly dressed!"

Jed dutifully picks up the cue:

"That don't make no difference in the Quarter!"

The audience is really into it now. This is the most entertaining performance of STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE they've ever seen. It's one of those magic nights when truly special things happen.

As is often the case when the wheels start coming off, the actors get maniacally energized and start trying too hard to redeem themselves.

Jed and Blanche are doing the paper lantern scene, where Mitch tries to get a good look at Blanche so he can tell how old she is.

Like everything else on our set, the Japanese paper lantern has seen better days. Jed tears it down off the bare light bulb every night and the stage manager, who is trying to save money on this shoestring production, tapes and glues it back together. The lantern is one of those cheap, ribbed things; thin yellow paper stretched over a wire spiral frame. By this time the wire has come unhinged and is hanging out the bottom of the paper.

So here comes the moment:

"...I've never had a real good look at you, Blanche. Let's turn the light on here."
"Light? Which light? What for?"
"This one with the paper thing on it."

Jed reaches up to tear the lantern down and grabs a handful of the wire that's hanging out the bottom. When he pulls, the wire starts unraveling, leaving the paper part untouched.

Jed now has a spool of wire in his hand, so he takes a mighty swipe with his other hand and makes another attempt to pull the lantern down. Again he misses the paper and grabs nothing but wire.

Now he's got wire wrapped around both hands.

Blanche is watching in helpless fascination.

Jed starts desperately pawing the air, trying to rid himself of this deadly wire. There's a surprising amount of it in these lanterns and it's snaking around him like a giant slinky.

Little pieces of paper and spools of wire are bouncing around the set now while Jed grunts in his efforts to finally destroy the lantern.

Blanche has moved upstage, out of harm's way.

The audience is enraptured.

Finally Jed, with a furious howl, launches himself at the light bulb itself and rips the whole electrical socket down from the roof of the set.

Jed and Blanche complete the rest of the scene in ambient light while surrounded by spools of wire. It makes interesting little sproing sproing noises when they kick it with their feet.

We're on a roll now.

The light board operator has had to adjust the lights to compensate for Jed tearing down the light bulb in the previous scene. He's rattled.

It's the climax of the play, when Stanley picks up drunken, crazy Blanche and carries her off to the bedroom while delivering his famous "...We've had this date with each other from the beginning!" line.

Stanley slings her up and prepares to exit upstage to the bedroom. But the light guy hits the lights too early and blacks out the stage. Now Stanley has to negotiate the exit in pitch darkness, through mounds of stage mulch and coils of wire, while using Blanche's head as a battering ram.

The audience can't see anything, but they can hear a lot.

"Clip-clop... sproing sproing... Thud! Ouch! Shit!... sproing sproing... splash Thud! Ouch! Jesus!... sproing sproing sproing..."

At curtain call, Blanche comes out with a bandaged head, Jed drops a beer bottle into the pit, Stanley stands on his hands and Eunice and I pick up slinky wire and twirl it around like pom-poms while we pant and moan and stomp our feet.

I think this is the only night we get a standing ovation.

Center Stage goes broke and our director closes it down and moves to England. Blanche eventually goes to rehab. Jed gets cast in JAWS III. Stanley and Stella stay married (for awhile) and have a kid.

That winter Stanley and I play Scrooge and Bob Cratchit, respectively, in A CHRISTMAS CAROL. In our first scene at the counting house, I open the ledger and find page after page of Penthouse centerfolds pasted therein.

Here we go again.

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