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Blanche Survives Katrina in a FEMA Trailer Named Desire

nytheatre.com review by Melanie N. Lee
August 9, 2008

Louisiana native and now Brooklyn resident Mark Sam Rosenthal was inspired to create his one-performer show, Blanche Survives Katrina in a FEMA Trailer Named Desire, after he saw an orange X spray-painted on his aunt's house by the National Guard. What he offers is a tragicomic look at Katrina's aftermath through the eyes of New Orleans's most famous fictional resident, Blanche DuBois of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire, transplanted agelessly from the Jazz Age to the Dubya Age.

On stage, a battered door with an orange X hangs flat over an upside-down tricycle, together looking like a flatbed wagon. A dingy ball gown rests on a small spiral staircase. Not far, a worn-down desk rests on its side. Mardi Gras beads hang from the beaten furniture. A young man with a backpack walks on, dons a surgical facemask and gloves, and inspects the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina upon New Orleans.

As "Don't Rain on My Parade" blares in the background, the bewildered young man opens a tattered umbrella, looks at a framed photo, and plays with a blue dildo. He finds and opens a tan cosmetic case from a small suitcase, a valise. He removes the mask and gloves, takes from the valise a blond wig, puts it on, and brushes on some makeup. He's transformed into Blanche DuBois—"America's most broken woman."

"Lost again—like Belle Reve!" she exclaims. Thanks to improperly filed papers with her HMO, she was kicked out of her asylum and forced to live with the Kowalskis again. Now searching for her missing sister Stella, Stanley, and The Baby, Blanche wanders into the Superdome, finding herself surrounded by "dubious refuse....In a pot full of café, I seem to be one of the few drops of au lait!" She tells of Superdome toilets "overflowing with the waste of the unwanted", and of taking a bottle of booze from a dead man's hand.

She endures her Dome-mates' stories of life in subsidized housing—"not the stuff of literature!" She longs to rally the others to hope: "We shall—as you say—overcome!" As "Don't Cha" blasts, she admonishes them to "refrain from freaking, as you call it." She temporarily dons a blond wig full of dreadlocks.

Resorting to her famous active imagination to cope, Blanche pictures the school bus driver taking her to the Shreveport FEMA office as the pirate Jean Lafitte spiriting her away. FEMA caseworker Mr. Callahan assigns her to share space with Chandria D'Africa, whose rapper boyfriend Tyrece is missing. Learning she's been "adopted" by Christ the Avenger World Ministry of Phoenix, Blanche blasts Callahan: "I'll be helped not by taxes but by tithes?" She tags the "faith initiative" as "faith that when you [the government] fail to take the initiative, someone else will."

Directed by Todd Parmley, Blanche Survives Katrina makes clever, sometimes cloying, use of famous Williams lines, and adds Shakespearean cadences of its own, amid personal, social, and political commentary. Rosenthal, with a mixture of dark humor and pathos, captures well the woman who thinks she's too good to share this fate with so many who "look like maids," but copes with charm, humor, memory, upper-class poise, literacy, flirtation, and booze. A variety of background songs underline Blanche's journey. Kelly Tighe's set design looks like art salvaged and gilded from refuse, appropriate for this broken woman once again trying to survive a disaster.