Archive for September, 2009

Is It Hot In Here, Or Is This Just A Tennessee Williams Play?

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009
Mason Hill play Stanley Kowalski

Mason Hill plays Stanley Kowalski

(Playwright Darren Callahan recently interviewed Mason Hill and filed this report): “Why?”  It’s a common question put to an actor.  Why that role, why that character?  Mason Hill has kids and a wife – why put everyone through all that…drama?

“Okay,” he says, as if he’s settling in to tell a long joke, then raises his low-rent beer bottle up to his big beard (one that would make that guy from Iron & Wine jealous).  He drinks and finally explains.  “If you read the play, the actual text – not see it, but read it – when that guy enters the room, there’s a big ol’ description of him – it goes on and on.  And in that description is the reason every American male actor between 25 and 40 wants to play that guy on stage.” 

The character he’s talking about is the notorious Stanley Kowalski.

Though only one piece of the puzzle that is Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, working class louse Stanley Kowalski is right up there with Frank from Blue Velvet or The Joker in The Dark Knight for dangerous unpredictability.  Impulsive, to say the least, Stanley is a man who is so brutally honest, he’s sometimes just plain brutal. 

“I don’t hate him,” confesses Mr. Hill, “and his wife doesn’t hate him.  He doesn’t feel he’s a bad person – he feels virtuous.  He wonders, ‘Why aren’t more people like me?  Why don’t they really see what they are, what they want, where they belong?’”   But to play such a villain?  “I don’t see him as a villain,” says Mr. Hill.  “If he’s not loveable, he’s a fucking monster.  Who wants to play a monster?  I have to find the reasons his wife loves him, and the reason friends would love him.” 

Charley Jordan, a member of Polarity Ensemble Theatre, the company behind this unique revival of the classic, remarks, “When I heard Mason was going to play Stanley, I was very happy for Polarity, and then I was very, very happy for Mason.” 

Having grown exponentially since defining himself as a killer Iago in Othello, then a rock star Hamlet, and again appearing in last season’s quadrilogy of weirdness that was his four simultaneous roles in The White Airplane, Mason Hill has proven quite capable of slaying Williams’ bad boy. 

The play’s director, the notable Ann Keen, has said of Mr. Hill, “There are certain roles an actor has only a small window to play.  You don’t want to be fifty and play Stanley Kowalski.  The text says he was relatively fresh out of military service, and he isn’t a general.  When a chance comes along, an actor will want to take it.”

When asked how might an actor play ‘impulsive’ when everything is rigorously rehearsed, Mr. Hill smiles mischievously.  In The White Airplane, he was known for curveballs.  “There are certain actors you know can react to anything.  If I throw a punch early to get a surprise, you want to be sure that actor isn’t going to blank and forget their lines.  It hasn’t reached that point of ‘anything goes’ yet in rehearsals, but we’ll get there.  The others might even do it to me!” 

 A Streetcar Named Desire performances will take place at the Polarity Ensemble Theatre in the Josephinum Academy, 1500 N Bell, Chicago. Showtimes are Friday and Saturday at 8pm, and Sunday at 3pm. Opening Night: Monday, October 5th at 8pm. $19 general admission. $10 previews October 2nd – 4th. Tickets can be purchased by calling 1-800-838-3006 or by visiting Brown Paper Tickets.

Suddenly, This October

Monday, September 21st, 2009
Ann Keen directs Polaritys A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE
Ann Keen

(Playwright Darren Callahan recently interviewed Ann Keen and filed this report): What can director Ann Keen bring to a play that’s already seen thousands of productions since its opening night more than 50 years ago? Plenty, as we’ll see when Polarity Ensemble Theatre presents Tennessee Williams’ masterwork, A Streetcar Named Desire, opening October 5th.

Ann Keen, director of Polarity Ensemble Theatre’s smash hit redux of Hamlet, where the Prince of Denmark hung to rafters as a rock n’ roll star, knows what it takes to remake a classic. Sure, the play will live in the confines of a low budget and a storefront-size space, but Polarity prides itself on invention and high quality, and this production is no exception. Nothing is more challenging to a theater company than to present a modern classic, especially one crowded with the ghosts of past productions, including touchstone performances by Brando, Leigh, and Hunter. Add to that a complex story with deep emotions that’s woefully short on yuks (as Neil Simon might say) and most fledgling companies might crack under pressure.

Louisiana is a lot different today than it was in the mid-20th century, but we still recognize it as three things: hot, sticky, and filled with drama. On whether the cast shortened the play’s title as “Streetcar” or, perhaps, “Desire” – a choice of emphasis between transport and sex – she laughs and replies, “We prefer to call it ‘hard work.’” Balancing a large cast, an extensive prop list, and an ambitious approach to the incidental music, Keen emphasizes the simplicity of the play, “It’s about a woman who wants love.”

When asked about “that scene,” where Stanley crosses a sexual line with Blanche, the scene is alternately referred to as “the seduction” and “the rape.”  Tennessee Williams knew he was at the edge of the moral plane all those years ago, and the power of that moment, and its implications, have changed little with time. Twenty-first century audiences are certainly more accustomed to witnessing, absorbing, and judging these moments in art – but are they used to it thirty feet away and in 3D? 

“It’s not really a healthy play,” remarks Keen. “But it’s a journey worth taking. For an audience, it’s an emotional thrill to see these rich characters at critical moments of choice. And to see how one relationship affects Blanche so deeply is fascinating. It’s also interesting to think about what her life was like after the curtain is drawn. She’s a character that ends on such a note of curiosity that it’s helped the play endure.”

Helping Polarity’s production endure as well is a strong cast. Mason Hill, the much-praised star of both Polarity’s Hamlet (2007) and The White Airplane (2009) brings his charisma and energy to the working-class Stanley; Laura Sturm ignites her own Southern heritage and plays Blanche DuBois as a heroine in crisis. With Abigail Trabue as Stella, it’s one hell of a trio.

“Seeing this work up close and intimate, done this strong, is bound to have impact,” promises Keen, “and we’re working to make sure this production is like no other that’s come before, or will come after.”

A Streetcar Named Desire performances will perform at the Polarity Ensemble Theatre in the Josephinum Academy, 1500 N Bell, Chicago. Showtimes are Friday and Saturday at 8pm, and Sunday at 3pm. Opening Night: Monday, October 5th at 8pm. $19 general admission. $10 previews October 2nd – 4th. Tickets can be purchased in advance by calling 1-800-838-3006 or by visiting

Streetcar Embodies Chicago Storefront Theatre

Friday, September 4th, 2009
Richard Engling

Richard Engling

The new season is underway! Ann Keen is rehearsing the cast of A Streetcar Named Desire. This is our first time out with an American classic, and I am delighted. Ann (who you probably know is our founding Managing Director) has always loved this play, but she never felt she could direct it without being absolutely sure she could cast the right Blanche.

Everything fell into place after Laura Sturm joined our ensemble. Ann first directed Laura as Queen Gertrude in Polarity’s critically-acclaimed Hamlet. Laura had been recommended to her as one of the best non-equity actresses in the city of Chicago. What she discovered was an actress who did her homework (Laura is an absolute research glutton) and who was totally emotionally connected with her work. No wonder Laura is also a sought-after acting teacher. After that first outing, Ann knew she’d found her Blanche DuBois.

With Blanche in place, Ann was able to assemble a cast with incredible chemistry. She put in stellar ensemble mates Mason Hill as Stanley (you may have seen him in such Polarity roles as Iago and Hamlet), Abigail Trabue as Stella (Polarity’s Antigone and Lydia Languish) and Lauren Cerkiewicz as Eunice (Hamlet’s Gravedigger). To that unbeatable core, she added some of the best independent actors in town. Opportunities like this are why directors love to work with an ensemble. And Ann is brilliant with these performers. This is what Chicago storefront* theatre is all about.

A Streetcar Named Desire performs at the Polarity Ensemble Theatre in the Josephinum Academy, 1500 N Bell, Chicago. Show times are Friday and Saturday at 8pm, and Sunday at 3pm. Opening Night: Monday, October 5th at 8pm. $19 general admission. $10 previews October 2nd – 4th. Tickets can be purchased in advance by calling 1-800-838-3006 or by visiting


Richard Engling, Artistic Director

*If you hadn’t heard the term before, “storefront” theatre refers to the low budget yet passionate theatre companies that have defined the Chicago acting style. Many of these companies perform (or started out) in cramped storefronts, thus giving rise to the term.