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"Streetcar" smolders at Sycamore Rouge, while "Henry" feels soft in the middle. A Streetcar Named Desire" depicts the power struggle between the increasingly unstable Southern belle, Blanche, and her brutish brother-in-law Stanley. Stuck in the middle is Stella, devoted to both her husband and her big sister. The strength of Sycamore Rouge's current production of Tennessee Williams' masterpiece comes from director Tommy Schoffler's ability to keep the three sides of this triangle balanced but in perpetual danger of collapse, building tension until the situation inevitably implodes. This sustained tension kept me riveted during what, in less skillful hands, could have been a dreary, overlong soap opera.
Key to Schoffler's success is his employment of three skillful leading actors, most notably Terry Menefee Gau. She inhabits the epic character of Blanche with exceptional nuance and nimble assurance, avoiding caricature and proving an able adversary to Bill Brock's Stanley. The specter of Brando haunts any production of "Streetcar," but Brock acquits himself well, projecting Stanley's stubborn cleverness as well as his intense physicality. All that is missing from his performance is a touch of vulnerability. Though hers is the least flashy role, Angela Shipley makes for a magnificent Stella, her quiet pragmatism giving way to passion when she falls into Stanley's arms.
The play's plot is surprisingly sparse: Blanche moves into Stella and Stanley's cramped apartment in New Orleans after losing the family estate in Mississippi; complications ensue. Revelations are slowly disclosed and relationships start to develop. While Schoffler allows the pace to lag late in the play as Blanche starts to unravel, this is also when Gau really excels. Then the action snaps back into focus for the final few scenes.
The loose cabaret atmosphere of Sycamore Rouge suits "Streetcar" perfectly, with the action occasionally wandering into the house, beyond designer Nathan Elsener's evocative set. Schoffler's spooky sound design enhances the steamy ambience. The result is a captivating play offering an intense but well-balanced ride through an emotional battleground.
Henry IV, Part 2
Balance was one of the reasons "Henry IV, Part 1" was such a triumph during last summer's Richmond Shakespeare Festival. Bawdy bits of farcical comedy featuring the foppish Falstaff served as an effective counterpoint to the passionate scenes of rebellion and intrigue. This summer's chapter in the history cycle, "Henry IV, Part 2," is dominated by farce and is worse for it.
It doesn't help that the political backdrop in "Part 2" is not terribly compelling, serving primarily as a bridge between "Part 1" and "Henry V." Unhappiness with the king festers, but nothing much comes of it, as rival Northumberland (Christopher Dunn) decides to run instead of fight, and a coalition of rebels led by the Archbishop of York (a dashing Brandon Crowder) chooses peace over war. The pratfalls of the still reprobate Falstaff fill in the significant gaps. Master of Play James Alexander Bond amplifies the coarse elements of these scenes, a review of new soldiers straying into truly gross territory. You may laugh, but you may cringe as well.
Darryl Clark Phillips makes for a more-than-adequate Falstaff (though he tends to act with his stomach too much for my taste), and he has worthy companions in Joseph Anthony Carlson's fierce Pistol and Jacquie O'Connor's scattered Mistress Quickly. But I spent most of the play wishing for more of Phillip James Brown's dashing Prince Hal and David Bridgewater's faltering, conflicted Henry IV. These two dominate the last quarter of the play, making it the best part of the evening.
In his role as choreographer, Carlson leads some of his co-stars in a sweaty, sexy prelude to the play, full of tribal rhythms and movement. This interlude and the play's climax work as electrifying bookends. Unfortunately, too much of what's in between seems like filler. S
"A Streetcar Named Desire" plays at Sycamore Rouge in Petersburg through Aug. 9. Tickets are available by calling 957-5707 or visiting www.sycamorerouge.com. "Henry IV, Part 2" is at Agecroft Hall through Aug. 3. Tickets are $13-$24. Call (866) BARD-TIX or visit www.richmondshakespeare.com.