Orpheus Descending Reviewed By Les Spindle

By Tennessee Williams

Southern CA
October 29, 2003
Orpheus Descending Reviewed By Les Spindle

” Orpheus Descending” Theater: Pacific Resident Theatre Location: 703 Venice Blvd., Venice Phone: (310) 822-8392. Starts: October 04, 2003Ends: December 06, 2003 Evenings: Thu.-Sat 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. Price: $20-23.50 Presented by: Pacific Resident Theatre

Mythology, melodrama, and malevolent machinations are at the heart of Tennessee Williams’ juicy Southern soap opera. This 1957 play isn’t generally cited among Williams’ masterpieces, yet it’s an irresistible mix of soaring lyricism and guilty-pleasure theatrics. A testosterone-charged Greek tragicomedy, it perches on the precipice above camp, but in the right hands it never quite makes that plunge. Thankfully, director Elina de Santos maintains a delicate balance. She leads a gifted ensemble in capturing the humorous aspects of Williams’ off-kilter characters while bringing out the script’s tantalizing omens of Olympian doom. The play’s plum lead role is Lady Torrance, a great vehicle for consummate actors, including Maureen Stapleton, Anna Magnani, and Vanessa Redgrave. PRT’s artistic director, Marilyn Fox, eloquently steps into the shoes of this earthy Italian fireball, who’s pitiable for the cards fate has dealt her yet admirable for her resiliency. Fox pulls off a zesty Italian accent while smartly conveying Lady’s feisty resolve, suppressed lust, and hunger for spiritual salvation. Lady’s divine rescuer is the sexy and sultry drifter Val Xavier, whose last name represents one of Williams’ least subtle examples of religious symbolism. Greg Vignolle brings a perfect aura of seductive energy to this challenging role; he projects the smoldering sensuality of a Dean or a Brando yet thankfully avoids parody, opting for carefully modulated nuances rather than cliches. The empathy we feel for Val is richly earned in Vignolle’s provocative yet down-to-earth portrayal. The chemistry between Fox’s menopausal misfit and Vignolle’s wayward stud-muffin becomes the production’s strongest asset. The supporting actors offer deft interpretations. Best of the bunch is Brad Greenquist’s chilling performance as Lady’s dying husband, Jabe, with his jovial bedridden Jekyll morphing into a pathologically sinister Hyde. Alley Mills plays a bedraggled, deranged waif, whose garishly painted face, true to the script, looks like a cross between a Ringling Bros. clown and a Sunset Strip streetwalker. Going a step further into cartoonishness, the local gossips who flit in and out to spread bile are so exaggerated, we expect them to launch into a chorus of “Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little.” Through no fault of the performers, this is a prime example of over-the-top Williams stylization that hasn’t aged well. Diane Hurley does a bang-up job as Jabe’s caretaker, an apparent second cousin to Nurse Ratched. The sharp production design is highlighted by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s wondrous mercantile-store set, with its finely textured brown color scheme and array of artfully imagined details. Ed Cha’s lighting supports the play’s subtly stylized milieu, and Audrey Eisner’s costumes are spot-on. Following this summer’s misfired revisits to seldom-performed Williams works in two local theatres, PRT proves that lesser-known needn’t equate to less rewarding.

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