By Grace Maiorano
As Clara yearns for the return of her lover, Giorgio, she describes in a letter how “sometimes I think that when you watch a person sleep there’s a transparency that lets you see their soul …”
Unfortunately, one could see a few souls in the audience.
Despite those drowsing attendees, the Arden Theatre’s anomalous portrayal of Stephen Sondheim’s Passion evoked a compulsively twisted nature of unforeseen love, unlike his serendipitous tale of West Side Story. The show, running through June 28th, is another segment in the theatre’s series of Sondheim spectacles.
The set design of Passion is primarily composed of large black panels that attempt to serve as scene-changers, but in actuality maintain a one-dimensional space housing similarly one-dimensional characters.
The single-sided individuals, as well as the basis of the story, could agitate any feminist. The play’s foundation centers upon women’s objectified roles in life, stitched together with lyrics like, “a woman is a flower whose purpose is to please,” and “as long as you’re a man, you still have opportunities … whereas, if you’re a woman … you are either a daughter or a wife.”
The story is set during 19th century Italy in a remote military base. The strapping, yet vapid, character of Giorgio, played by Ben Michael, is forced to leave his erotic affair with a lustful married woman, Clara, played by Jennie Eisenhower, to fulfill his military duties.
The musical maintains its ideology of superficial concepts with Giorgio’s hollow demeanor, confirming that as long as the male is attractive, women can overlook the rest.
The actor who played Giorgio, Ben Michael, appeared to excel in this empty role, occasionally appearing aloof on stage. But, this worked well, considering his character’s disposition.
“As far as acting, the lead man got better as the play went on,” said theatre-goer, Mary Lou Bremser. “Maybe he just needed to warm up.”
At the outpost, Giorgio finds himself the subject of an almost-fatal infatuation when a mundane, ill, and much-less-seductive woman, Fosca, played by Liz Filios, develops an ungodly obsession for him that disturbs her mental state. She will nearly – quite literally – drop dead at the declaration of his unrequited love.
The clichéd theme resurfaces again through Fosca’s interest in books, which is merely omitted by her lackluster sexuality, a clearly obvious contrast to the character of Clara.
Through a series of letters, Giorgio attempts to convince Clara that Fosca’s fixation couldn’t possibly deter the relationship with his beloved mistress on the home front, but as Fosca lurks in the corners on the stages, she lurks in the corners of Giorgio’s mind.
Inevitably, the passion turns into a plague. As the story comes to a close, Fosca’s passive, yet persuasive, ways subtly erode Giorgio into a submissive state. He declares his own love for her, kills her cousin, and promptly winds up in a mental hospital by the end of the musical.
One of the production’s more impressive points is its effective use of lighting, especially noticeable in narrative scenes throughout the musical, like letter-reading dialogue and storytelling.
In the “Sunrise Letter” scene, Clara’s face is beautifully lit with pinkish-orange shades that bring life to the imagery she creates of a sunrise with her angelic voice and Sondheim’s timeless lyrics.
Passion is peppered with the sporadic tenor sounds of fellow militants who sing their way through scene transitions. Through barbershop-sounding harmonies, they mostly reiterate plot points and underlying themes in order to keep some of those drowsing audiences members in check.
“Watching the show was a little itchy at times,” said theatre-goer, Lynette Lazarus. “It may have been better with the special effects.”
Unfortunately, due to technical difficulties, the production’s videography elements, which were created to embellish the set, were not shown during this particular performance.
If there is anything one can take away from this production, it’s the understanding that unlike the characters and the set design it occupies, women are multidimensional beings free from the ideas this musical suggests.
Grace Maiorano can be reached at email@example.com.