Lost on the Levee

The title may be the most engaging thing about Mark Sam Rosenthal’s exploration of Tennessee Williams’s greatest creation negotiating the aftermath of the 2005 storm. Blanche DuBois finds herself disheveled and in the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans. But her experience seems refracted through that of author Rosenthal, as the play begins with him wandering through the debris, putting on yellow gloves and a filter mask to start cleaning up. Amid the muddy debris of the hurricane (Kevin Tighe’s willy-nilly piles of artifacts include an ornate portrait frame, a child’s bicycle, a blue rubber dildo, and Carnival beads), he discovers a pale green, pristine valise. When he opens it, a bright red, surreal light shines out. Inside he finds a blond wig and tiara; when he dons the wig, he becomes Blanche, riffing on her adventures with Stanley and Stella before the hurricane, in the Superdome, and with a FEMA roommate named Chandria d’Africa who is separated from her boyfriend Tyrece. The solo show becomes a dramatic stream-of-consciousness effort that not everyone may follow as Blanche encounters an assortment of characters and experiments with crack (and indulges in alcohol).

Blanche Survives Katrina… isn’t a drag show, though it reeks of camp. Rosenthal doesn’t trying to disguise his masculinity (at one point, his bare, hairy chest is covered only by a ragged shawl). The script is merely a meditation on the character in different circumstances, and one may surmise that Blanche embodies poor New Orleans itself.

Although Rosenthal's Blanche borrows phrases from Williams's heroine ("It just buzzes right through me," she says of the booze), the language here is determinedly high-falutin’. In an imaginary encounter with Jean Lafitte, for instance, she remonstrates, “No! Unhand me, you rascal pirate! I warn you, my sisters will track you down—and you shall have the wrath of the archdiocese upon you if so much as one blonde hair upon my head is harmed! Yes, you will steer your masted schooner through the murky waters of the bay at Barataria, you will secret me to your lair where you and your merry band of brigands intend to perpetrate all manner of mischief on me! And you think that I’ll enjoy these degradations because you’ve heard stories but I won’t because they are not true.”

A little of that goes a long way, but there’s no crude, brawny Stanley Kowalski to offset the feyness and flightiness—and his impatience with her in A Streetcar Named Desire very quickly becomes understandable. Anyone who attends Rosenthal's sequel may well decide that Stanley had every right to put Blanche away.

In Rosenthal’s script, Blanche has been released from the asylum, to which Stanley committed her, in order to seek shelter from the storm. She returned to their home to ride it out, and while she clung to the top of the stove, “They died. Drowned ... there in that house on Elysian Fields,” she says. After Katrina, Blanche has encounters with various characters, as well as drugs and alcohol. Surrounded by black refugees in the Superdome, she muses, “In a pot full of café, I seem to be one of the few drops of au lait!”

Later she acquires Chandria d’Africa as her FEMA roommate. The scenes with Chandria are played in a strange, dreadlocked blond wig that Blanche finds in a second green valise—the how and why of these spotless valises are points left unanswered—and puts on. The wig suggests the look of Chandria d’Africa, but Rosenthal isn’t Chandria. He’s always Blanche, and yet it's not a wig Blanche would ever wear. Director Todd Parmley hasn't helped clarify such confusing moments. Later, Blanche is transported to a new life in Phoenix, where she is aided by Christ the Avenger Church (one of the few really funny gags) and serves fried chicken at a fast-food restaurant.

If Rosenthal has a point to all this, other than an extended riff on the character, it’s not clear. It may be that Blanche embodies New Orleans, the elegant lady brought low, struggling against the ravages of the storm, scrambling just to survive and doing things no one should have to do. But Parmley invests no tension in the piece, no urgency about what happens next to her. It just plays out as a rambling streetcar heading nowhere.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post