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Passion — Arden Theatre

Passion_1_loStephen Sondheim’s musical, “Passion,” comes to a pivotal point at which a young soldier, driven to a range of emotions, most of them negative, by the unwanted, unencouraged love he’s engendered in an ill, homely, lonely woman, suddenly becomes deeply enamored of his former nemesis, and sharing her ardor, longs to requite their love.

Having seen “Passion” six times before Terrence J. Nolen directed it for Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre, I know where in James Lapine’s script the dramatic turnabout occurs. It is always a profoundly moving moment because like the young soldier, Giorgio, your feelings towards the obsessive woman, Fosca, have mingled revulsion with pity.

Fosca can be a monster, fixated on her one-sided romance and endlessly insinuating herself in Giorgio’s path and claiming his attention, even if she cannot claim his affection. That belongs to another woman, Clara, who remains in Milan while Giorgio fulfills his military service in a bleak Italian military outpost far from the abundant beauty Italy affords or the culture which it exudes.

Clara amply shows her personal, and sexual, commitment to Giorgio before he leaves for the Italian hinterlands. As played by Jennie Eisenhower, she is a remarkable woman — witty, conversational, in sincere and obvious love, and good in bed, as established in “Passion’s” first moment. To leave her for the less worldly, more cloying, less gifted, less attractive Fosca would be difficult for any man. Given the ordeal through which Fosca puts Giorgio, the prospect of jilting Clara for her seems impossible.

Yet, there’s that moment when it clear to anyone watching “Passion” that such a transition happens.

That is, if it happens visibly and moving on the stage on which “Passion” is being played.

At the Arden, with Ben Michael playing Giorgio, it doesn’t.

Oh, the climactic sequence goes by. It’s part of Lapine’s script. No one directing “Passion” would think of leaving it out or allowing it to be downplayed.

The problem is, at the Arden, in Nolen’s “Passion,” it passes without impact. Without even a hint of importance. Nothing in Michael’s demeanor, manner, or voice gives you to immediately perceive that a cataclysmic event is taking place, that he suddenly acquires such an visceral, complete understanding and bond with Fosca that he will forgo all he and Clara have planned to reciprocate Fosca’s love and be with her. Completely and dotingly. It isn’t until a subsequent scene, is which Giorgio is kind, warm, and solicitous to Fosca that we realize something monumental has happened. By then, what should have been an epiphany, and could have been profoundly moving, is reduced to a curiosity.

Michael and Nolen have squandered “Passion’s” most splendid and essential moment. A singular event has occurred, but we are not given the privilege of seeing it. Instead, we have to review all that has happened between Giorgio and Fosca’s last meeting and intellectually make the link that explains Giorgio’s behavior.

That isn’t what theater’s about,. Theater shows and makes what its shows indelible and moving. Especially in a transformational scene such as the one between Giorgio and Fosca, a sequence that changes the tone, mood, and course of the entire musical.

Your attitude towards Fosca has to alter along with Giorgio’s. You have to root for the reversal of heart and be taken with it. If not, there’s no point to “Passion.” Its romance, and ultimate story about true love evolving and thriving in spite of colossal obstacles, has no poignant, arousing effect. The entire musical dies on the vine.

Which is exactly what happens at the Arden.

A production that looks as if it’s going well and is going to create the atmosphere and intensity needed to show Giorgio’s competing romances, and Fosca’s triumphing personal gifts, falls apart because Nolen has made two fundamental, and fatal, mistakes. He has allowed Ben Michael to be a voice without a libido. Frank X’s doctor and Ben Dibble’s base commander have more substance and fire in them than Michael’s Giorgio. So does Ben Cherry’s class clown of a garrison mate. In his opening scene with Eisenhower, you see immediately that Michael’s Giorgio is not as ardent or committed a lover as Clara is. At first, I thought this was an interesting bit of interpretation. Knowing the play, and the movie on which it’s based (Ettore Scola’s “Passione d’Amore”), I thought perhaps Nolen was signaling Giorgio’s ambivalence towards Clara and foreshadowing the possibility he can direct his affections elsewhere.

Not so. Michael sings beautifully, but he never conveys the passion he allegedly feels at separate times for two different women. At a military officer, Michael radiates confidence and competence. As a friend, as he tries to be when he first offers the sickly Fosca reading material other than the training manuals that slake her desire to read, he seems believable.

He also convinces when he eschews Fosca’s stalker-like attempts to be his paramour. Giorgio isn’t sure when discussing books and amiable conversation became misapprehended as love, but he is firm is his denial of any romantic affection and direct in telling Fosca to come to her senses or at least give him privacy and air. It’s hard enough to breathe in the region the base is located.

In time, with more experience, Michael might grow into a role like Giorgio. Other work he’s done this season, in Horizon’s “Into the Woods” and 11th Hour’s “Dogfight,” show his potential. His physical presence has some authority, and I’ve mentioned his excellent singing. It’s as two kinds of lover, one who seeks to spurn and one that opts to woo, that Michael is lacking. You feel neither his resentment towards Fosca nor his desire for her. You don’t even see his ardor for Clara.

Remember what I said about theater showing and not telling. Michael has to put more of what Lapine and Sondheim’s supply on the Arden stage.

Nolen’s other mistake is more endemic to his work in general. He has a tendency to soften scenes and situations, to make them less intense or confrontational than they are.

There’s a reluctance to go for the throat, to allow a heroine, as Fosca is, to be hated or, worse, to be unattractive or justifiably despicable.

In “Passion,” that again misses the point.

Or skirts it. Since Fosca, by definition, must be both physically repellant and emotionally insufferable

Liz Filios is a marvelous Fosca. She knows how to show her character’s obsession while letting her finer, more laudable traits come through. Filios’s Fosca is soft-spoken and well-spoken. She obviously appreciates and relishes the heightened level of company Giorgio represents among a company of rough soldiers. She can assess all that’s happening around her, including her own extreme behavior towards Giorgio and modify it. Filios’s Fosca gives indications that in patient, sympathetic. potentially welcoming hands, she might be an engaging, amusing partner for a man. She’s informed. She’s observant. She’s witty. In time, her impediments could pass for vulnerability or overanxiety, which are certainly part of Lapine, Sondheim, and Scola’s design, and favorably impress a man like Giorgio.

All of the texture with which Filios endows Fosca is to her credit. It elevates her from being a clinging harridan who misinterprets every kindness proffered her and who gets so possessively consumed with her infatuation, she is as unbearable to the audience as she is to Giorgio.

Filios’s range is admirable. Nolen’s softening is excused on that count.

The big problem is Nolen never allows Filios to truly play Fosca.

That’s where his reluctance to be extreme keeps his production from being the fullest it can be.

NealBoxWe hear a lot about Fosca before we see her. Her precarious health confines her to her chamber at the garrison, where she resides because Dibble’s commander is her own living relative, and vice versa. The doctors tells Giorgio of Fosca’s fragility, He also informs him about an unfortunate past in which Fosca trusted a feckless fortune hunter who took her away from the warmth of her family and abandoned her to shame once he spent her entire dowry. The doctor implies Fosca’s delicate state is the result of that harrowing time and thoughtless treatment, that embarrassment and depression have robbed Fosca of her health, of her pride, and of any self-esteem.

To add to all of Fosca’s woes, she is also reported to be homely beyond normal plainness. She is ugly, her features distorted by the many agonies she’s endured. The doctor suggests Fosca is disfigured and can be pitiful to behold.

After we have taken in all of this information with Giorgio, Filios appears.

Contrary to all X’s doctor has told us, she is far from disfigured, far from ugly, and can even pass for pretty.

Rather than make up Filios to look unattractive, just grotesque enough to make it untenable to imagine kissing her or making love to her, Nolen has ordered relatively nothing to disguise Filios’s favorable features — I see more pallor and masking in the photo I chose to illustrate this review that I noticed while seeing Filios on stage. — but has had costumer Rosemarie E, McKelvey swath her in billows of a mousy brownish-gray fabric that just about engulfs Filios and make her look as it she was gift wrapped instead of clothed. When she’s not dwarfed by her big gown, she looks like she’s donning gray sackcloth. Only one navy blue dress seems right for the character and the occasion. It seems as if Nolen has decided to make bad taste in clothing Fosca’s misfortune instead of almost tragic ugliness. Filios’s hair is dressed in a flat, dowdy, unkempt, unstylish fashion, but her face is pristine and lovely. With some judicious correction in makeup and wardrobe, Filios’s Fosca could be as radiant as Eisenhower’s Clara. You almost want to take Fosca to bed to see what’s under all of that chintz.

Could it be that the politically correct may sneer and brand the Arden with charges of “lookism” if Filios was made up to be as hideous as Giorgio and we are warned she will be?

Heaven forfend! Never mind there has to be something about Fosca to repulse Giorgio, something more than his commitment to Clara, a relationship Michael gave the impression was half-hearted from his viewpoint anyhow.

In her first appearance, Filios is halting, as a woman emerging for the first time in months from a chronic sickbed may be. She is slow of motion and in speech.

She is also all grace. A major aspect of “Passion” has been missed, obliterated in what I think is some desire to be nice and inoffensive about ugliness, even if it’s a significant aspect of the story, a stated stumbling block that must, like Giorgio’s moment of recognition about loving Fosca, show up prominently, courageously, on stage.

Donna Murphy, who originated the role of Fosca, is about as beautiful as anyone on Earth, yet she, with a big mole and squinting eyes was a Fosca who, on first sight, would not move a heart.

Filios’s Fosca doesn’t move Giorgio’s heart on first sight either. But only because Lapine’s book says she doesn’t.

The first exchange between Giorgio and Fosca, who has come to the communal garrison dinner for the first time in months just to see the kind man who has sent her new books to read, is courtly and sweet. The scene is one in which love can bloom. Fosca reveals nothing off-putting, nothing that would fail to charm. So her taste in gowns is a bit dated or overstated? So she isn’t skilled in choosing a palette that favors her? So her hair is not done in a flattering style? She shows an intellect and possibility for companionship that would at least make a man like Giorgio, who does not have much affinity with his fellow soldiers, welcome another conversation, a subsequent visit.

If Fosca is as cruelly unattractive as she is purported to be, there’s logic in her mistaking Giorgio’s friendly way and responsive speech for the beginning of a relationship that might her spare from isolation and redeem her from what she regards as disgrace. She may think Giorgio’s gentility lets him see past her ugliness to the sensitive, intelligent, perhaps sensuous woman she keeps buried under McKelvey’s waves of silk.

Filios’s Fosca has no such claim to misinterpret Giorgio’s attention. Her face is lovely, her manner refined, her conversation lively, and her charm intact. It would be no challenge for Giorgio to fall in love with her. It would be the most natural thing in the world.

That isn’t “Passion.” Giorgio has to find Fosca physically revolting even if she is socially diverting. He has to reject her, her overtures, and intrusions in subtle, or even frank, ways while maintaining an air of camaraderie. He can remind Fosca of his promises to Clara while being fraternal to her, as Dibble’s commandant, her cousin, is.

For “Passion” to be totally plausible, an imperatively forsaken, impossible to romance Fosca must delusionally think Giorgio can feel for her in exactly the uncontrollably passionate way she yearns for him. Filios’s Fosca isn’t even plain. Her frocks are, but she isn’t. She might have reason to believe the social, intellectual ease she shares with Giorgio is a natural first step to the kind of happiness Giorgio and Clara so openly announce they enjoy with one another.

Without the tough, hurtful underpinnings “Passion” requires, the musical loses much of its pathos, tension, and drama.

Nolen’s “Passion” is far from unwatchable. On many levels, it’s quite enjoyable, Jorge Cousineau’s stage becomes quite grand when it has to me, with his charming, edifying videos often enhancing a scene, establishing a mood, or giving palpable context to a setting or situation. “Passion” moves along deftly enough, but it diminishes its own high points, so you never have the full effect of all Giorgio, Fosca, and Clara are going through. The most successful scenes are between Giorgio and Clara because their dramatic stakes are not as high, and the sadness in them is cut by the reasonable yet wistful way Eisenhower’s Clara approaches her disappointment in her unexpectedly failed love affair.

Mundane scenes among the soldiers in the garrison work well. All in the cast acquit themselves with dash and would delight a drill master with how efficiently they move rolling tables on stage and into place. Nolen definitely tells the story Sondheim and Lapine present in “Passion.” He just doesn’t give it its full ration of octane. Punches regarding Fosca’s appearance and irritating habits are pulled. Nothing is as extreme or pronounced as it needs to be. Important scenes are lost in an well-oiled evocative shuffle that gives a sense of place and period but fails to bring Fosca’s full romance, and Giorgio’s eventual response to it, to full light. The story and the production competently engages you. It never grabs you and makes you see the wonder of love, romance, and miraculous transition.

That’s why the most moving passage is the departure sequence between Giorgio and Clara. The scene has full definition. Something severe and unpleasant is happening. Clara, although Eisenhower shows her trying to conceal it, is having her heart broken, her dreams dashed, her sense that Giorgio is an upstanding, honorable, and magnanimous man shattered. Because no matter how Filios softens Fosca, we never develop an affectionate regard for her, Eisenhower’s resigned, clear-headed Clara is the one who gets our sympathy at the same time she receives our best and confident wishes she will do better with her next love.

Nolen never lets Filios get to the superlative. He protects her Fosca by not making her ugly enough. He allows her to be cloying and grasping, but even within Filios’s most stridently grating, most jarringly aggravating scenes, there’s always a glimmer of Fosca being self-aware she is going too far while “Passion” would be best served by its heroine being unable to conquer the reckless, undisciplined abandon to emotion that makes her so obnoxious and threatens all chances for the romance she is trying so relentlessly to secure.

Filios makes you care about and like Fosca in the scenes in which she confesses she is clinging and vexing. She is so plaintive and so sincere, you feel for her character while forgetting Fosca is not yet ready to shed her fierce obsession no matter how rational her mode of expression sounds. At the railway station, when Giorgio is taking what is supposed to be a long leave to spend months with Clara, her seeming understanding should still be a ploy, not an actual, deepfelt admission that she’s been making a shameful nuisance of herself.

Credit must be given where it’s due, especially in a review that carps, pointedly and with purpose, at details while admitting Nolen’s “Passion” flows well and plays pleasingly, if you don’t insist on the important passionate moments in the musical being revealed through concentrated dramatic action.

Passion_7_loThat credit goes to scenes that worked beautifully, including some difficult passages such as the one in which Giorgio countermands an impulse towards childish foolishness and carries a hobbled Fosca from a remote forest promontory to the barracks in a driving rainstorm. All of the scenes between Frank X and Michael, and Ben Dibble and Michael, worked well. X provided his meddling doctor with an urgency and with a sense of professional expertise that made people, including Giorgio, serioulsly consider what he said and admire his humanist wisdom. Dibble was all military precision and is especially strong in the scene in which he misconstrues the letter he finds among Fosca’s belongings, a scene that precipitates one of “Passion’s” tensest and most suspenseful sections.

Nolen never lets passages showing barracks life become tedious (even though I could have done with one or two fewer choruses of the soldiers toasting, Michael Philip O’Brien always coming in spiritedly for the end note). He and Cousineau are also wonderful about keeping scenes set in Milan colorful and filled with atmosphere.

There is a flow and a polish to Nolen’s “Passion” that takes it smoothly from its first celebratory scene of amour to the desolation to which Giorgio becomes doomed. It is neither the pacing nor the general tone of the production that keeps it from being top-notch. The mitigating factors remain Michael not showing us the moment of revelation in his transition scenes and the leery reluctance to encourage Liz Filios to be the fullest Fosca she can be.

Filios may not get to the play all the facets inherent in Fosca, but she performs well within the direction she’s given.

Filios endows Fosca with sincerity. Even at her most insistently intrusive, you could see Fosca’s longing and how much she wanted her delusions of mutual love to be true even as she knew her evaluation of her and Giorgio’s love was false and fueled with desperate desire and hope. The scene at the railway station, when Fosca seems to have come to her senses and almost apologizes for the threats and tantrums and other tirades she fomented in the name of love, is particularly sweet and shows the alternative depth Filios gives Fosca, as if to compensate for the dramatic depth that Nolen denies her.

Filios is not responsible for Fosca presenting as too pretty. She tries to make Fosca awkward in her walk and bearing, but these are devices a man who finds a woman interesting can excuse.

Filios is a wonderful singer who brings feeling to “I Never Wanted to Love You” and other songs that express her obsession with Giorgio and eventual calmness. Filios is especially touching in the scene, still manipulative but resigned to friendship if she can manage it, in which she dictates the letter she always wanted Giorgio to write to her, a fateful letter than has so many unintended but critical repercussions.

Jennie Eisenhower is marvelous as Clara. She conveys a practical woman of the world who knows how and when to take time from responsibility, respectability, and reserve to indulge in the passion that comes with being in love.

Eisenhower shows Clara’s ardor from the first minute of Nolen’s “Passion.” She retains that frisson of joy every time she encounters Giorgio but handles the stoic resolve of a mature woman facing a crossroads with equal and equally affecting aplomb.

Of all of the characters in Nolen’s “Passion,” Clara may elicit the most genuine sympathy. Eisenhower plays her as a desirable woman and competent, patient partner. Her Clara is a woman you can trust and who will find a way to make the happiness she sings about a part of everyday life.

Eisehhower may have had the most varied year of any performer on local stages. She began the season as an unself-consciously bizarre Morticia in Media’s “The Addams Family,” followed as a stern, determined Annie Sullivan in “The Miracle Worker,” also for Media, showed her endurance, musical chops, and comic talent in “Field Hockey Hot” for 11th Hour, and closes the year with this elegant, winning portrayal of Clara for the Arden. It all makes you want to see what Jennie will be doing next.

Ben Michael is, in general, a welcome addition to the local cadre of leading men. His Giorgio has stability and appeal, but Michael, talented though he is, has to build or the intensity and naturalness he gives a character of Giorgio’s complexity. The desire and impetus to fill out the role is definitely there. Michael needs to gain more experience so the intentions he reveals turn into full execution.

He has to let himself go more. You could sense his self-consciousness in the opening sex scene. He didn’t have the abandon Eisenhower displayed.

Michael is strong in scenes in which Giorgio spoke directly, as in his passages with Frank X and his early and post-railroad scenes with Fosca. He is less secure in letting you see all that is going on in Giorgio’s head. I am glad that Michael is such an honest actor, but it’s important to convey deception in scenes in which your character is being polite when he wants to launch out and demand to be left alone. The explosion of sorts on the mountain where Giorgio can choose to leave Fosca to the harsh elements needs to be foreshadowed with more build.

It’s kind of have faith in an audience, but Michael has to show more that is going on in Giorgio’s heart, mind, and psyche. This is especially important in the scene I can’t let go of in which Giorgio comes to a realization as he is inscribing Fosca’s words in a fabricated letter that is supposed to be from him. Though Filios fulfills all she must in this scene, and does it movingly, Michael cannot be bashful about grabbing the stage for a second or two so people can see the effect Fosca’s recitation has on Giorgio and the awakening he experiences while humoring Fosca in what seems to be a modest request.

As I’ve said throughout, that revelation is not present. I have even broken my long-standing habit of not asking people about specific aspects of a production to ask dozens of friends, and even colleagues, if she or he saw the exact moment Giorgio turns from being Fosca’s less and less begrudging companion to being a man in love with her. No one I’ve polled has, although not seeing it did not mar everyone’s enjoyment of Nolen’s “Passion” the way it influenced mine.

Frank X has several fine moments as the doctor who is sincerely worried about Fosca’s thriving but who may go too far, as gossip or meddler, in asking others to intervene in his patient’s possible recovery. Ben Dibble takes command as the head of the remote garrison. Ben Cherry, as noted, provides comic relief as an teasing and obtuse member of the military company.

The glass dome of Milan is a welcome site about Jorge Cousineau’s projections. Thom Weaver finds the gray dimness in the Italian barracks while contrasting the remote countryside to the opulence and passion of Milan. The soldiers’ uniforms, royal blue, with red half-lapels, by Rosemarie E. McKelvey, and elegantly handsome and make the entire “Passion” cast look alert and ready for action. Ryan Touhey, as usual, lead a flawless orchestra.

Sondheim’s score for “Passion” is often dismissed, but I think it contains several instances of lush melody that is different from much of the staccato writing he’s done since “Sunday in the Park with George” in 1984. I hum the “Happiness” number as I write. Fosca has some lovely arias Liz Filios performed with artistry.

Ben Michael keeps proving how adept a singer he is. Eisenhower also sounded grand in this production.

“Passion” runs through Sunday, June 28 at the Arden Theatre, 40 N. 2nd Street (2nd and Church Streets), in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Tuesday and Sunday, 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. No 2 p.m. matinee is schedule for Wednesday, June 24. Tickets range from $50 to $36 and can be obtained by calling 215-922-1122 or by visiting www.ardentheatre.org.

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