Stranger Kindness Sets its Sights on Exposing the Artifice of Stage and Screen by Bret McCabe

The Acme Corporation is playing chess on multiple levels with Stranger Kindness, heading into its final performances this weekend. The most superficial is the play’s metafictional gambit. Acme majordomos Lola Pierson and Stephen Nunns have adapted Tennessee Williams’ provocative postwar melodrama A Streetcar Named Desire, treating Williams’ script as a readymade.

Acme’s regular shapeshifter Sophie Hinderberger plays Blanche Dubois, the former well-to-do schoolteacher and proper Southern lady who is freshly down on her luck following a string of family and personal calamities as the play begins. She’s recently arrived in New Orleans to stay with her sister Stella (Britt Olsen-Ecker), who is married to Stanley Kowalski, a hotheaded, working-class World War II vet. Harold “Mitch” Mitchell (Jamil Johnson), one of Stanley’s poker buds, takes a bit of a shine to the glamorous, coy Blanche.

In this production Stanley isn’t played by a performer; instead, his lines come courtesy of a recording of the actor who originated the role in the 1947 play and 1951 movie adaptation, Marlon Brando.

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This disembodied Brando is the only performer speaking Williams’ words. The other three characters’ dialog comes from other texts. Hinderberger’s Blanche speaks lines lifted from the plays of Samuel Beckett. Thorton Wilder’s Our Town supplies the lines for Olsen-Ecker’s Stella. And Johnson’s Mitch reads says words provided by a range of feminist thinkers and philosophers; the playbill lists bell hooks, Luce Irigaray, Gloria Steinem, Silvia Federici, and others.

These words are about the only dramatic element so irreverently and obviously altered, as the cast, under Nunns and Pierson’s direction,* goes about performing the play is if nothing about it is amiss. (There’s a number of presentational variations in the production, but more on those in a minute.)

The stage blocking, character interactions, and the overall plot is recognizable to anybody who has seen any version of Streetcar, a play Tony Kushner called one of the “unquestionable big three” of American playwriting alongside Arthur Miller’s Death of a Saleman and Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. If you happened to listen to an audio recording of Acme’s play, however, it might sound like Streetcar not merely remixed but screwed and chopped into something entirely new.

It’s an arresting, disorienting jolt, and wrestling with why behind this approach is the more profound task that Acme asks of us with Stranger. From today’s vantage point it’s difficult to understand just how much the mid-20th-century method acting school had on American stage and screen performance. Growing out of the rehearsal and acting techniques approaches of Constantin Stanislavski and cultivated by the Group Theatre collective in Depression-era 1930s New York, the American approach to method produced a number of teachers—Stella Adler, Robert Lewis, Sanford Meisner, and Lee Strasberg—that reinvented what a distinctly American style of theatrical stage and screen performance looked like in the 1940s and ’50s. (See “Birth of the Method” in the November 2014 issue of Sight & Sound for a compact overview of this era.)

The admittedly reductive kernel of the method approach is for a performer to tap into personal memory experience in order to tap into and produce the emotional intensity necessary to make written drama feel like real life onstage. And this mid-century crucible of stage teachers, performers, directors, and writers spilled over from the theater into film and television, altering not only how actors performed but what kinds of stories were told and how those looked to audiences/viewers.

The esthetic acceptance that method-shaped performance is what “great” acting looks like became so entrenched in American performing arts that, as Terrence Rafferty notes in his “The Decline of the American Actor” essay in the July/August 2015 issue of The Atlantic, that come the 1970s and The Godfather, we see the first generation of independently minded film-school brats better studio Hollywood at their own game. And in it, “Marlon Brandon, the greatest Method actor of them all, presided over a kind of coming-out party for younger Americans whom he had inspired, and who had trained more or less as he had.”

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For many of us born around then or since, it’s possible that our whole understanding of what “great” American acting looks like, and the context in which those performances takes place, is entirely defined by representational approaches born out of this intense approach to American stage acting. And Acme doesn’t want to have anything to do with it. Stranger isn’t merely a radical remix of Streetcar; it’s an all-out assault on what we talk about when we talk about dramatic naturalism and realism.

That may sound like a reach, but if there’s one thing Acme doesn’t do is odd and weird for its own sake. There’s an intentionality behind every element of the presentation, line reading, text, and even audience seating arrangement to call attention to the fact that this acting approach is a performative construct, no more or less a stylistic convention as slipping on a banana peel to score a slapstick laugh or string music to feel sad in a movie. And almost every decision in Acme’s Stranger feels informed in some way to peel away the realistic/naturalistic patina of the method approach to spotlight the artifice underneath.

Consider the seating arrangement: audience members plop their bottoms in a pair of rows lining the second-floor balcony of Acme’s St. Marks Evangelical Lutheran Church performance space. Right in front of this semi-circular layout is a row of monitors, which sometime screen clips from director Elia Kazan’s Streetcar film and sometimes show what’s being enacted on the stage below, with footage coming from three cameras in and around the set.

This seating arrangement makes us both theatrical and live studio audience, a hint that Stranger is asking us to think about what’s going across stage and screen. The three different camera positions feel like a cheeky allusion to the multiple-camera set ups used during live television dramas during that golden age of the 1950s, where a generation of future film directors were on-the-fly creating a visual language for what televisual naturalism and realism looked like in anthology programs such as Westinghouse Studio One and The Philco Television Playhouse.

A few times, a character or two directly addresses the camera, speaking at a rapid-fire pace that renders what they say gibberish, and it’s sometimes accompanied by an audio track as well. It feels like a upending of the close-up that’s often used to spotlight an individual character’s thoughts, feelings, or emotions. In Stranger, the close-up becomes deliberately confounding. Also: Streetcar when usually performed runs about two hours. Stranger runs about an hour, prime-time friendly. We’re seeing both a remix of a play and a live TV production.

Presentation decisions like these invite us to watch a little differently, and if you let yourself be confused by Stranger‘s text and give yourself over to the performances, it becomes a surreptitious knockout. Sports metaphors and physical contests with degrees of difficulty come to mind when considering what the cast is pulling off here, but even that feels inadequate. Hinderberger, Olsen-Ecker, and Johnson aren’t merely being asked to pull off a quadruple axel in figure skating or break the 29-foot barrier as few long-jumpers ever have, they’re being asked to do a quad axel, blow past 29 feet, and stick the landing.

I don’t act and have never tried, but I’ve been around enough film and stage productions during rehearsals to have some sense of how scripts and stage blocking gets parsed out into chunks to make lines and movement become muscle memory, for the physical and verbal flow to become music in the actors’ bodies and minds. Dialog often becomes the narrative harmony that helps things seamlessly move along in such instances, and on the simple surface of the text, Stranger‘s narrative isn’t simply disharmonious, it at times short circuits the brain because what’s said doesn’t seem to fit the narrative sequence. Instead of going “duck, duck, goose,” it goes “duck, duck, annihilation.”

And that hiccup feels to be exactly what Stranger Kindness wants us to question: what does reality supposedly look like when recreated by performers? What does it mean to perform and contextualize sexual violence, which Streetcar contains, inside a representation performance and televisual language? What does it mean to say something as is realistic—that it makes us think this is how real life looks, feels, and moves?

Those aren’t trivial questions; the critical praise heaped on the style of American performance and drama that grew out of method acting ideas is mammoth. Remember, Streetcar‘s film adaptation was the first movie to win three of the four Academy Awards for acting—who didn’t get one? Brando—and the next and only other film to take home three acting Oscars was Network in 1977.

It was written Paddy Chayesky, who cut his screenwriting teeth for theater-primed TV programs in the 1950s like Philco Television Playhouse and The 20th Century Fox Hour, and directed by Sidney Lumet, an alumnus of the method-steeped Actors Studio and another veteran of 1950s TV such as Playhouse 90, Kraft Television Theater, and Studio One. (Brief side note: as rightfully beloved as those politically paranoid 1970s films are, they’re much less fun now that it feels like we’re living in that kind of reality, no?)

It’s not entirely out of the question to wonder if what we consider dramatic realism is merely the product of a cohort of similarly minded, predominantly white American men and women who had access to a career pipeline that moved from stage to television to film. In that sense, critically pondering whether or not Stranger Kindness is good or bad in terms of putting on a show feels a bit moot. It aims for something else entirely, and if you allow it, this Acme production encourages you to start thinking about everything else you consume in different ways. Take the red pill.

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Author Bret McCabe is a haphazard tweeter, epic-fail blogger, and a Baltimore-based arts and culture writer.

Acme Corporation’s Stranger Kindness will run through December 17, 2016. Tickets available here: http://theacmecorporation.org.

* An earlier version of this review credited Nunns as the director. Nunns and Pierson co-directed the play.