Israeli Director Gives 'A Streetcar Named Desire' a Surprising New Setting

By transferring the setting of the play from Tennessee Williams’ American south to a cosmopolitan European quarter, director Ilan Ronen gives us a tale of an entire lost civilization.

Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts
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Evgenia Dodina in 'A Streetcar Named Desire.'Credit: Gerard Alon
Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts

Almost 30 years ago, Ilan Ronen directed a brilliant production at the Haifa Theater: He shifted the plot of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” from an unknown time and place to a construction site in Israel, and turned the tramps into Palestinian construction workers for a Jewish subcontractor. Now he’s doing something very different, but also very similar in a way: transferring the plot of “A Streetcar Named Desire” from the American south to an urban district somewhere in Europe, where the walls are covered with graffiti in myriad languages and colors.

Blanche and Stella, the two southern belles, are now two immigrants from Russia, who also chatter to each other in Russian. Stanley is no longer a “Polack,” but a Turk, and the other neighborhood residents are a mix of races and ethnicities. Ronen has hit on something very true in this play, something that usually remains hidden by the huge shadow cast by the fragile and mentally disintegrating Blanche. Here, the setting in which the play takes place becomes the protagonist, the secondary characters are also the setting, and the stage directions are part of the text.

Blanche takes a streetcar named Desire to a neighborhood called Elysian Fields (which is far from living up to its name). At heart she is miserable, even if at times she’s content with her lot. And as in his interpretation of “Waiting for Godot,” in which he followed the personalities of his Arab actors, here Ronen follows in the footsteps of his two leading actresses, Evgenia Dodina as Blanche and Anna Dobrovitzki as Stella, a Russian pair from somewhat different generations.

Ronen has also succeeded – and he elaborates on his intention in the program – in extracting the play from its realism. The stage is bare, without walls (except for the rear wall of the exposed stage) and only vital furnishings appear when needed, such as a bed and a bathtub. The important thing is the people who populate this paradise named misery, of which the story of the sisters and Stanley and Mitch is just one part. This is more a story of a lost human civilization than of lost characters.

There is much more to say about this production. Given the space constraints, I will make do with citing the cast members, because they deserve it. Miki Peleg-Rothstein as the neighbor Eunice has a warm and impressive presence. The other characters from the neighborhood are played by David Balinka, Rotem Keinan, Roi Saar, Eyal Shechter, Harel Murad, Lior Zohar and Assaf Segev. Their presence and work is a very important factor in the impression made by the play. Miri Lazar created the stupendous choreography in which the neighborhood people give form through dance to Blanche’s memories and nightmares.

Pini Kidron is a very likeable and human Mitch and Anna Dobrovitzki makes Stella a much more significant player than in most of the “Streetcar” productions I’ve seen, which were more of a duet. Evgenia Dodina’s Blanche elicits a compassion and love that is natural and real and painful. If I have just one tiny and cautious criticism to make, it would be about Amos Tamam in the role of Stanley. He looks and acts the part, but compared to the two women opposite him on the stage, he seems a little lacking in the animal vitality that’s called for here, and oddly enough for someone who excelled as Kazablan, this is noticeable in his voice.

But all in all, this is a most impressive production that casts a new and fascinating light on a very familiar play.

Habima Theater and Cameri Theater production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” by Tennessee Williams. Director: Ilan Ronen. Fri at 12.00; Sat at 18.00, 21.00 at Habima Theater, Tel Aviv.