Those of us who love the theatre are very lucky to live in our corner of the East Bay, where we can see live theatre at all levels of formality, accessibility, sophistication, budget and ticket pricing — from Shakespeare to the work of young playwrights, from Broadway stars to neophyte actors, and from velvet seats to folding chairs.
The vital, welcoming, multicultural Ubuntu Theater Project, founded in Oakland in 2012, is currently performing one of Tennessee Williams’s best written and most iconic plays, Streetcar Named Desire. It’s the drama set in 1947 New Orleans in which the unstable, erstwhile Southern belle Blanche DuBois (Lisa Ramirez) moves in with her pregnant sister Stella (Sarita Ocón), and is tormented by Stella’s loutish and violent brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski (Ogie Zulueta), while reality deteriorates around her.
This Pulitzer Prize winning play is difficult to pull off successfully, not only because the classic film version with fabulous performances by Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando is so well known, but also because, without subtle acting and direction, it has a tendency to become a caricature of itself.
Directed by Emilie Whelan, Ubuntu’s production is engaging and absorbing. Williams’ writing holds up extremely well 70 years after it was written. Lisa Ramirez’s performance in the difficult role of Blanche was nuanced and noteworthy, whereas Ogie Zulueta’s Stanley didn’t work as well for me. Sarita Ocón as Stella, and Dominick Palamenti as Blanche’s suitor, Mitch, acted their roles successfully and skillfully.
It should be noted that all the actors were working under challenging circumstances. The Alice Collective, which Ubuntu is using as the venue for this production only, is not a true theater. One enters through a series of red velvet curtains to an open-floor stage, with several posts that separate the view, so director Emilie Whelan had a tough job of effective staging and blocking. In the same way Blanche creates her own world of magic, the Ubuntu set ingeniously recreates the indoor/outdoor scene with minimal props and lighting.
Ubuntu is a Zulu proverb that means “I am because we are” and “I am a person through other people. My humanity is tied to yours.” This philosophy of compassion imbues its choices. The actors, creative team and staff at Ubuntu, driven by their love of the theater, are working on a small budget and the ticket prices reflect it. Advance tickets are between $15 and $45 online, and you can pay what you can at the door. Subscriptions are also available on a pay-what-you-can basis. Why would you ever want to go to a movie when you could see vibrant live theatre at these prices?
Streetcar Named Desire is playing weekends at The Alice Collective, 272 14th St., Oakland, through Feb. 25. For information, extended dates and tickets, visit Ubuntu Theater Project’s website.