Anupama Chandra believes a good drama deserves a good new cast every time it’s resurrected and with this production it has
“A Streetcar named Desire” stopped being just a play the moment it made its debut on Broadway. It was a deviation from the regular (musical and comedic) fare that defined Broadway till then
Title of Play: A Streetcar named Desire-A “Bombay” adaptation
Assisted by: Subrahmanian Namboodiri
Author: Tennessee Williams
Director: Jeff Goldberg
Starring: Urvazi Kotwal, Kashyap Shangari, Saloni Khanna, Rishabh Raj Mehrotra, Sumit Jakhar, Arjun Abrol
Language: English and Hindi
“A Streetcar named Desire” stopped being just a play the moment it made its debut on Broadway. It was a deviation from the regular (musical and comedic) fare that defined Broadway till then…it became an unmatched launchpad for one of the greatest champions of method acting—Marlon Brando—…it has also come to be regarded as a test of the calibre of every method actor since. It is this thought, maybe, that made the advanced batch students of Jeff Goldberg Studio choose to resurrect this drama.
Adapting to the times
Based on the original text of Tennessee Williams, the ‘Bombaiya’ adaptation is set in poorer quarters of Chembur where Stella DuBois Fernandez and her ex-army husband Stanley live in a cramped flat while her sister Blanche reminisces about Pondicherry that she misses as she does their lost ancestral home Belle Reve (meaning Beautiful Dream) in the French Quarters. While it is clear that Blanche, as a teacher on a supposed leave of absence from her duties, has imposed on her younger sister for lack of options and money, her clear disdain of the fate that Stella has chosen for herself is also unmistakable, especially to Stanley who refers to himself as “the king” of what he considers his kingdom.
Stanley hits back with accusations of Blanche having cheated Stella of her share immediately, while in fact the property was lost in mortgage, as Blanche proves with a sheaf of documents. He also bristles at her referring to him as a “madrassi”, which he demands to be replaced with the term “Manglorean/Mangy”, yet he stands so close to her at every given opportunity that his twisted yearnings are not easily concealed. It is evident that he spoils for any opportunity to go after her and brooks no opposition to his intentions, going as far as to club his pregnant wife when she objects to the rough treatment of her sister.
Blanche’s flirtation and growing liaison with his boss and friend causes him heartburn and as soon as he gets wind of her ‘indiscretions’ he passes on the information and witnesses to him. He saves the big showdown for Blanche’s birthday, negating Stella efforts at brokering an alliance for her sister and hosting a family meal on the occasion.
Underlying, strong, currents
The two forces at play in the text seem to be of a sense of coarse practicality and that of a higher calling, such as beauty and grace. Stanley represents the common (wo)man for whom ancestral property means money bereft of memories and beauty while entertainment is getting drunk, whereas for the sisters, especially Blanche, life is all about beauty, silks and pearls, pretty lanterns, tea parties and cinemas. The clash of the two worlds build up throughout with the brutal one winning each hand, till it conquers every aspect of the gentler, deluded one by beckoning her as she submits like a lamb to the altar.
I was excited to see an American like Jeff put up a full-fledged Indian nee ‘Bombaiya’ production quite ably, with what he called help from his cast. A menagerie of Indian languages danced on-stage from Haryanvi to Konkani, from crisp English to loose languorous dialects of Hindi. He decided to end the play one scene earlier than the original text and nick the end to soften the brutal ending of a rape resulting in complete madness.
The production was bang-on with the lights highlighting all that is required and drawing your eyes subtly to it. The sound was particularly unobstructive for a verbose drama such as this.
The petite Urvazi Kotwal, as Stella, is building up quite a range of characters who tug at your heart upon getting beaten up on-stage with frightening regularity, when not quietly trying to keep her house in order, wait hand-and-feet on Stanley and Blanche, and cater to the whims of her neighbours. Kashyap Shangari as Stanley is quite the brute who speaks in rude tones, throws food and radios to ruin, and gets what he desires whether or not that causes harm to another.
Saloni Khanna as Blanche was a revelation. Her nervous, introspective, dressed-to-the-nines character who hides her age with soft-focus candle light, seeks protection in her suitors, cries at the memory of her own cruelty to her gay husband is bang-on. You will recognise the morbid tune of “Non, je ne regrette rie”, which was used in the movie ‘Inception’ to wake up the dreamers to reality, as her descent to lunacy.
Rishabh Raj Mehrotra, Sumit Jakhar and Arjun Abrol support as friends of Stanley, with a shout out to the first for bringing in the humour in Jat speak in such a dense drama. As the friend in love with Blanche, his journey from being besotted to barely being able to stand her presence is mapped in full detail. The audience lapped up his dialogue delivery and dialect, and the overall lovable, sensitive and eventually hurt qualities he endowed his character with.
A tiny post-script
What took the cake that day was the attendance of Dolly Thakore at the show. She recalled having played Stella in a 40-year old production and loved the way the tears of the new Blanche welled up and Stanley playing out the animal as it is meant to be.