Eugene Weekly : Theater : 10.09.08

Men, Women, Animals Behaving Badly
LCC and Cottage Theatre stage classics with varying success
by Suzi Steffen

In love, as at war, humans can behave like animals — or sometimes far worse when lust, money and power get involved.

Blanche (Shandi Sinnamon), Stanley (Mike Hawkins) and Stella (Caroline Cramer)
King Leontes (Kyle Cooper) expresses his fury at Camillo (Tony Schmidt)

So claim both The Winter’s Tale at LCC and A Streetcar Named Desire at Cottage Theatre. Unlike the Leebrick’s short Doubt, each will occupy about three hours of your time, not including travel. Jealousy, anger, survival and fierce ironies fill the minutes. That run of emotions can be exhausting if the actors aren’t up to the task. But when the players inhabit their characters, they infuriate and inspire in equal measure.

Indeed, acting prowess made the half-hour drive home from Cottage Grove just dandy. This production of Streetcar has a few pacing issues: Mostly, the scenes are appropriately languid for a New Orleans summer, but glacial set changes add many minutes to the running time. That’s a small quibble with a community theater production that outdoes itself thanks to direction from Marist’s Tony Rust and leads who know what they’re doing and, mostly, do it well.

At intermission, I overheard many people talking about how long it had been since they saw the movie; how they’d seen the live play 15 or 20 years ago — and how surprising they found the content. That content consists of love and money, loss and lies, an attempt to start over betrayed not only by alcohol but by a pounding class difference that eats away trust and family loyalty.

Short primer: Blanche DuBois (Shandi Sinnamon), older sister of Stella, arrives in New Orleans from a small Mississippi town, suitcase and trunk in tow for a visit to her sister and her sister’s husband. Blanche lies about a lot of things, haunted by something that happened a long time ago and by her attempts at survival ever since. Stanley Kowalski (Mike Hawkins), a working-class Polish guy who’s on his way up the career ladder at his plant, has something special going on with Stella (Caroline Cramer) until his simmering anger and resentment land them deep in the muck. 

The characters of Blanche and Stanley have dangerous potential for inexperienced or overwrought actors. But both Sinnamon and Hawkins perform with impressive skill. They aren’t overly indebted to Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando from the iconic 1951 movie, and they turn overquoted lines into believable moments in the lives of their characters. Sinnamon, in what could easily be a scene-chewing role, shows Blanche’s vulnerability and strength as well as her frantic attempts to cover her tracks. 

Strong as he is, Hawkins needs to show us something good about Stanley — why does Stella love him? Why would anyone be friends with this angry, violent, abusive man? Blanche calls him an animal, yes, but animals have their attractions as well as their terrors. As Stella, Cramer improves throughout the play. Stella must make some horrific choices, and Cramer shows the bleak strain of her decisions. Phil Dempsey as the kind, thoughtful, wounded Harold Mitchell turns in a rather sweet performance as well.

Most of the plot, including the downfall of the sickly, panicked, bravely lying Blanche, arises from lives ruined by homophobia. Have the women’s and LGBT rights movements made Streetcar almost arcane? Perhaps, but the clash of classes and genders, value systems and lifestyles ratchet up the tension to unbearable levels — and the lead actors solidly pull off this complex play.

That’s not quite the case in the other three-hour play now running in the area. In LCC’s The Winter’s Tale, familiar elements greet the audience: a beautiful court scene, a man’s unreasoning jealousy, exile, banishment and identity confusion. Familiar, that is, if you’re into Shakespeare … or, as the people behind me said to each other, if you’ve ever seen a telenovela.

I usually enjoy watching plays at LCC. The actors in the Student Productions Association might not be seasoned, but they have a lot of energy. That can lead to actors heedlessly throwing their bodies all over the stage, but it also means that fresh ideas gain traction. Here, director Judith “Sparky” Roberts should have reined in those ideas (and the body tossing). A hovering, muttering Bard? The overuse of Vivaldi? And the silly audience address as the actors file in for the final scene? Sigh. Experimentation makes for fun rehearsals and sometimes elicits stronger performances, but none of the folderol helps this production shine. 

The script itself often leads to head scratching. Action begins in Sicilia, where King Leontes (Kyle Cooper, who begins well in a difficult part but needs to find a larger range)and his pregnant wife Hermione (Michelle Nordella, who pulls off a sweet, sexy, stately queen) host Polixenes, king of Bohemia (a solid Chas King). Leontes urges Hermione to befriend Polixenes but  turns insanely jealous. Accusations and furious recriminations, late-night escapes and towering rages ensue. 

The king sends a courtier to expose Hermione’s newborn baby to the elements. See the animal behavior of the king? In case you don’t, Shakespeare reinforces the point with the most famous stage direction in English-language theater: “Exit, pursued by bear.” Still, the feral Leontes is so far gone that he won’t listen to the omens or the gods … and he suffers for it.

A Greek tragedy might end here. But the scene turns pastoral and sunny in Polixenes’ Bohemia. Nigh on everyone who writes about Winter’s Tale comments on this as odd — and the move definitely occasions a switch in tone (shown by Miriam Champer’s clarinet replacing Vivaldi). Yet the second half of the play mirrors the first, from dancing and a celebration of love to a king’s bestial rage to the escape of a trusted retainer (Camillo, played with the right amounts of deference and courage by Tony Schmidt). There’s more humor after intermission, provided by the robber/fool Autolycus (Marc Siegel), and there’s resolution when everything circles back to the Sicilian court and the sorrowful reign of Leontes. 

The play’s long and not superbly acted or produced, but hey, it’s Shakespeare! And LCC isn’t downtown, but that’s not a big deal … usually. Unless the campus’ ass-awful signage (Where the &!$% is Gate 9?) and gate-lock-happy security people make the long night much lengthier. Being trapped brings out the animal nature in us all.  

A Streetcar Named Desire runs through Oct. 19 at the Cottage Theatre in Cottage Grove. Tix at or 942-8001.

The Winter’s Tale runs through Oct. 18 at LCC. Tix at 463-5761.