WASHINGTON - -Cate Blanchett and Liv Ullmann conducted an impromptu lesson over the weekend in the duties, delights, and hierarchies of star power - with the help of the Australian Embassy.
Blanchett is starring in, and Ullmann is directing, the production of "A Streetcar Named Desire" running through Nov. 21 at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
This staging by the Sydney Theatre Company comes to Washington through the efforts of Dennis Richardson, Australia's ambassador to the U.S., before heading off to the Big Apple. (Blanchett and her husband, Andrew Upton, are the troupe's artistic directors.)
The ambassador has been looking for opportunities to trumpet his nation's contributions to the arts, so after Saturday's opening performance, the embassy threw a party in the Kennedy Center's atrium.
"One of our big ambitions," Blanchett told the gathering, "is to take our extraordinary wealth of individual talent, and to bring it to the international community. Tonight represents a big step in that direction."
Both the Academy Award-winning Blanchett and Ullmann, who first became famous in the 1960s as film director Ingmar Bergman's muse, would be considered A-list celebrities. But there was no question as to whom the party guests were the most eager to meet.
They didn't linger past midnight to listen to the string quartet, to drink champagne, or to nibble even such tantalizing party fare as crab and mango salad, figs wrapped in prosciutto, or strawberries dipped in white chocolate.
Nor did area residents snap up every available ticket to the four weeks of performances in Washington only because they were eager to experience the 71-year-old Ullmann's second career as a theater director. No, the buzz - in the theater's aisles, in the lobby at intermission, in line at the concession stands - was all about Blanchett.
"I was so excited that we had this opportunity to see a real-life movie star," said Aurora D'Amico, 62, of Arlington, Va., who came with her husband, Blaine.
Tickets to "Streetcar" have been sold out for a month, according to Kennedy Center officials, and they were snapped up without traditional newspaper, TV, or radio ads. "It was all word of mouth, and people who learned about the show when we announced our season in March," Kennedy Center spokesman John Dow said.
On one resale site, www.cheaptickets.com, a pair of choice seats with a face value of $100 each carried asking prices Sunday of up to $638 apiece. While that kind of inflation isn't uncommon for a hit Broadway show, it's virtually unheard of outside New York.
It was Blanchett who received four standing ovations after Saturday's show - five, if you count the applause that broke out when she arrived at the party shortly before midnight - stork-thin, elegant, and pale, in a cap-sleeved, fitted beige dress that appeared to have been made of raw silk.
But it was Blanchett's shoes that really said "movie star," especially since the 40-year-old actress had just held the stage for three hours in the notoriously grueling role of playwright Tennessee Williams' fading, fragile belle, Blanche DuBois. And, at some point in the evening, Blanchett had got a wicked splinter in her foot.
Nonetheless, she strode into the party in a pair of pumps with fancy lace cutouts in the back, and stilettos that were, minimally, 5 inches high. Those stilettos were so thin, and looked so lethal, Blanchett could probably have used her shoes to administer injections.
Saturday was the Sydney Theatre Company's U.S. debut. Blanchett said the whole cast was nervous about how a Yankee audience would respond to an Australian production directed by a Norwegian of a classic American play.
"We were incredibly apprehensive about bringing this play back to its homeland," Blanchett said, her voice starting to go hoarse after three hours of enunciating in an unfamiliar Southern accent. "But the flip side of anxiety is anticipation. And, for better or worse, we've crossed that hurdle. 'A Streetcar Named Desire' is an extraordinary masterpiece that crosses national boundaries and communicates with audiences around the world."
The crush of fans around Blanchett was so great that it was difficult to get within earshot of her without the aid of a heat-seeking missile. It was easier to approach Ullmann, who arrived at the party in black slacks, a black blouse, and a string of knuckle-sized pearls. Her hair, a graying blond, was swept into a French twist, and she arrived at the party hand in hand with Boston developer Donald Saunders, her husband of 24 years.
Ullmann said this production of "Streetcar" came about because she and Blanchett had been looking for a project on which they could collaborate.
" 'Streetcar' is one of my very favorite plays," she said, along with Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll's House" and Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya."
"They all tell stories about women who realize something about their own lives," Ullmann said. "Each one of them becomes free, but in very different ways."
Actress Elaine Hudson, who portrayed the role of a nurse, said American audiences find humor in some lines that fall flat in Australia - and vice versa.
"In Sydney, we have a younger audience, and not all of them know the play," Hudson said. "Some of them are seeing the play for the first time, so some of the more serious lines get laughter. Here, the lines about the Polish and the Irish get laughs that they don't in Australia. And, when Blanche says that her sister's home 'looks like something out of Edgar Allan Poe' - in the States, that gets a big laugh straight away."