The big news at Pillsbury House is the departure of Ralph Remington, whose evocative stagings of classics like Amiri Baraka's Dutchman and Lorraine Hansberry's The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window dissected the construction of race in America. In his last official engagement as artistic director, Remington also adds race to the litany of conflict in Streetcar by casting himself as meaty antagonist Stanley Kowalski. Given a deck already stacked with class hatred, mental illness, alcoholism, and homosexual self-loathing, Pillsbury is now playing with a house full of human misery.
For all their promises of innovation, however, Remington and director Leah Gardiner end up with a traditional Streetcar. The production looks much as we would expect; everything is languid and dusky, from the thick plants that droop above the Kowalski's apartment, to the spectral jazz band illuminated in the faint glow of colored lights beyond the scrim, to the muted scenes of Bourbon Street debauchery that materialize in the shadows around the edge of the stage. The characters, too, are as we remember them. Stella (Noel Raymond) is a nondescript hausfrau. Her sister, Blanche DuBois (Heidi Hunter Batz) is a fragile, damaged creature, shrinking away from direct light in hollow-eyed terror and whimpering pathetically as Stanley slowly grinds her sad little romantic illusions to dust. Stanley himself is the symbol of carnal appetite, by turns an affable thug and vicious misogynist (although Remington seems altogether too genial to generate the required cruelty; his violent spasms seem like bouts of madness rather than a facet of his bestial nature).
Bad religion: Tartuffe (Steven Epp) basks in the glow of his righteousness in Molière's moral parable
The fact that Stanley is played by a black man should add a disturbing new twist to the scenes of violence against Stella and his final violation of Blanche. After all, does this character not embody many of white America's most persistent (and pernicious) stereotypes of the black male? Far from an instance of color-blind casting, Pillsbury House announces in the program that they seek to discover a racial subtext in a play that seemingly didn't have one. An intriguing prospect, swapping color for caste, yet for some reason the production itself seems wary of the depths it has discovered. Rather than acknowledging the explosive new dynamic, Remington and company play it as Williams wrote it, with Blanche calling Stanley a "dirty Polack" and "bestial, animal, subhuman." If Pillsbury House had lit the fuse instead of merely substituting one skin pigment for another, they might have done something truly remarkable: Put a new face on a play that is showing its age.
Tartuffe runs through April 5 at Theatre de la Jeune Lune; (612) 332-3968. A Streetcar Named Desire runs through April 17 at Pillsbury House Theatre; (612) 825-0459.