The 1951 Elia Kazan adaptation of "A Streetcar Named Desire" is pretty much owned by Marlon Brando in all his magnificent, mumbling method actor swagger. Subsequent attempts to put on Tennessee Williams' 1947 play, no matter how artful, inevitably suffer from a void of charisma—no one else is Brando, duh—or end up stuck in some actorly Uncanny Valley where you'll see someone up there on the stage not so much playing Stanley Kowalski as playing Brando playing Stanley. But with Acme Corporation's "Stranger Kindness," a floaty, fractured, metatextual riff on "A Streetcar Named Desire" from Lola B. Pierson and Stephen Nunns (full disclosure: the husband of City Paper Editor Karen Houppert) the Brando problem has been solved.
Brando himself appears, via audio clips culled from his performance in the movie—in effect, "playing" Stanley off-stage—and then he's surrounded with lines from other hulking, canonical texts which, with their powers combined, get to stammer, yell, and fight back at the compelling lout. Here, Blanche Dubois (Sophie Hinderberger) doles out dialogue culled from Samuel Beckett plays, Stella Kowalski (Britt Olsen-Ecker) talks via lines from Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," and Blanche's suitor Mitch, assembles statements from Silvia Federici, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Gloria Steinem, Luce Irigaray, and other Marxist-Feminist and Womanist thinkers. It kind of feels like you're stuck in the mind of an English lit major who slept through the whole semester of classes and now tries desperately and wrongly to remember all the shit they learned for the finals.
"Stranger Kindness" is still set in Kowalski's apartment, though here with a melodramatic Sirkian twist and a modernist eye for the oblique (lots of frames within frames) and the apartment is being recorded, on closed-circuit cameras—their foggy gray visuals replace the crisp and silver-tinged black-and-white of the movie. The footage is then beamed to a series of 20 small monitors for the audience to watch in real time (occasionally, interludes of actual footage from the movie cut up with Stanley removed move us from scene to scene). The audience sits above the stage looking down into it, an expert use of the second floor room at the St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church and a way to nudge the audience towards intimacy. You're observing a cracked adaptation and the filming of this adaptation too and you cannot always take it all in, which makes you feel like Blanche, accosted and on sensory overload. Meanwhile, from a television tucked in the corner of the set, "The Simpsons" episode "A Streetcar Named Marge" runs on a loop the entire time.
The robust performances from Hinderberger and Olsen-Ecker keep up a sour and sweet existential volley for most of the hour and occasionally detour for explosive moments of unhinged emotion and disassociative po-mo gestures—all done via dialogue that most of the time, has little context. "There are no more bicycle wheels," Blanche declares towards the end. That's a line from Beckett's "Endgame" and it elicits grim dread and some guffaws from theater-aware audience members—and so its Beckett-ness remains, but it is also just the kind of absurdist poetic thing you might scream when everything is a bit too much.
Jamil Johnson, as Mitch, Blanche's sturdy suitor in the original is here, a #woke black revolutionary reciting radical non-sequiturs ("Feminists are made not born") as he woos Blanche. Johnson delivers the lines in a strident but pleasing, at times "yes, massa"-like diction that would've been how most black actors would have had to say subservient bit parts in movies and plays of the '40s and '50s. In this sense, it suggests the chain of support that must exist between oppressed peoples ("I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own," Mitch says at some point, kind of the play's thesis statement via Audre Lorde) and at the same time, nods to the way that issues of race are often sidelined.
All of this further frames Stanley as a white male blowhard basically, and with a boorish, all-yelling-all-the-time man as president, this shit could not feel any more ridiculous and relevant. "I am not a Pollack," Stanley screams out and then gives his naive speech about America, a perpetuation of the post-racial myth that is indeed, accessible to light-skinned Europeans and only light-skinned Europeans: "What I am is one hundred percent American. I'm born and raised in the greatest country on this earth and I'm proud of it." And by mocking Stanley here, it rejects Brando too, and the kind of masculine acting-out type of performance that hit a wall quickly but remains shorthand for raw nerve truth—serious theater as a bunch of men brooding, and hollering like assholes.
Last week, around when "Stranger Kindness" premiered, the internet was agog after director Bernardo Bertolucci, who worked with Brando on "Last Tango In Paris," said in an interview that the movie's infamous rape scene was staged without the consent of actress Maria Schneider. Bertolucci unapologetically framed the way he and Brando sprung the scene on Schneider as some brash, experimental way to get to "reality" which is misogynist bullshit, whose roots lie in the quest for truth that stem from Brando and Kazan's "A Streetcar Named Desire"—the method style as a pathology.
This is the other Brando problem "Stranger Kindness" reveals: "A Streetcar Named Desire" is, as the kids say, "problematic." It's a play/movie that, especially thanks to Brando's charisma, turns an abusive character into a very attractive brute that was directed by Kazan, a theatre and Hollywood hero also known for being a fucking rat who named names to keep working during the blacklist. And you might remember Barbara Loden, a brilliant actress and filmmaker who was also Kazan's wife, who made one wispy film, 1972's "Wanda" (John Waters described it as "one of the best arty feel-bad movies ever") which Kazan was apparently both unkind about and at other times tried to take credit for writing. This is what you step into, "Stranger Kindness," suggests, when you put on a po-faced version of "A Streetcar Named Desire" in 2016.
Instead, Acme offers up probably the most radical and punk rock art thing happening in the city right now. And yet, it's faithful to the Williams play in the ways that matter—namely, mood, message, and atmosphere.