The Washington City Paper, July 26, 2002
By Trey Graham
All too often, theater is the story of great ideas that don't work great
onstage. That's certainly the case with Passion and The Laramie Project
- both of them deeply felt shows that inspire rather less catharsis
than their creators presumably hoped.
I'll confess that, when it comes to Passion, I can't figure out why.
To me, Stephen Sondheim's darkly gorgeous musical has always seemed
a thing of operatic intensity, a livid bruise of a show whose emotional
nerves lie as close to the skin as those of its brooding, sickly antiheroine.
It insists that love is never simple, that if it conquers it can also
destroy, and that even obsession has a kind of coarse purity. That audiences
sometimes laugh at this show, as its deeply damaged protagonist and
her helpless passion for a man she barely knows, actually hurts me.
But then the distance between those two reactions to Passion is precisely
the distance that divides Fosca and Giorgio, the soldier whose basic
decency inspires her indecorous fixation. Handsome and sensitive, he
likes his love in neat rhapsodies -- witness the contrained abandon
of his affair -- with the beautiful but married Clara, which Sondheim
frames in a series of epistolary duets so soaring and melodic that we're
seduced initially into believing this is the kind of love he's come
Fosca -- never attractive, never graceful, now twisted nearly beyond
human sympathy by an array of physical ailments and nervous conditions
-- knows only a love that one of the show's most arresting lyrics calls
"as pure as breath, as permanent as death, implacable as stone."
What she keeps hurling at Giorgio is a love that is at once profoundly
demanding and utterly unselfish, that is obsessive enough to care nothing
for requital and yet insist remorselessly on being acknowledged. And
it's this love, perversely enough, in which Sondheim wants us to find
a kind of dignity.
Whether we can or not may depend on our patience for the unexpected
romanticism of such a notion. The show's 19th century Italian setting
of course helps -- we'd dismiss a modern day Fosca as a stalker, but
Verdi is full of passions as outsize as hers--- and yet our own tendency
toward emotional self-consciousness keeps getting in the way. We're
an ironic people still, regardless of how much we're supposed to have
learned about ourselves last September, and one of the ways we judge
our own sophistication is by how seldom we let our hearts off the leash.
In too many ways, Fosca's naked neediness is as embarassing to us as
the patriotism we used to find so unfashionable, and so we laugh nervously
whenever her ungainly raptures reach too feverish a pitch. And as Giorgio
gradually, unwillingly surrenders to her, too many of us refuse to surrender
Eric Schaeffer, whose 1996 staging of Passion at the Signature Theatre
minimized those anxious giggles and sold its audiences on Giorgio's
conversion, hasn't been able to duplicate the feat in the vastly larger
production he's put together for the Kennedy Center's Sondheim Celebration.
(Ironic, that, in that it was Schaeffer's feel for Sondheim and his
knack for making difficult shows work that earned him a national reputation
and eventually got him appointed artistic director of the summerlong
Why, exactly is a knotty question: The show's pace seems about right--
relentless but never hurried and the design team serves him well enough.
Howell Binkley's lighting is an especially strong and dynamic contribution,
washing the stage in shades alternately subtle and dramatic as the music
and mood seem to demand.
And certainly Schaeffer's principals couldn't be bigger assets: Judy
Kuhn is a hypnotic and relatively restrained Fosca, Michael Cerveris
is a striking, unexpectedly ascetic Giorgio and Rebecca Luker a poised
and radiant Clara, and they all handle their music with a confidence
that points up the harmonic richness of a score some find melodically
spare. (It's not really; it's just careful about how often it leaves
its haunting minor-key meditations to soar into relatively openhearted
It may be that Schaeffer has gone over the top here in a couple places,
where before his instinct was to understate; there's an overdone nightmare
scene that looks like something out of Swan Lake, and at one point he
punctuates a particularly heated exchange with a portentous flash of
lightning and a drawn-out rumble of thunder. Underlining the melodrama
in this show is like pointing up the laughs in Noel Coward; the material
hardly needs the help.
Or it may be that Sondheim's disinterest in black and white distinctions
makes the show feel conflicted about its conclusions; Passion never
argues that Fosca's is a perfect love, or even a better one than most
- just that it has a nobility about it that's missing in some more civilized
passions, and that for the three individuals it touches it is a necessary
Possibly it's just a question of scale. The original production given
in one of Broadway's bigger houses, couldn't keep audiences invested
in the story either. (Donna Murphy the formidable singing actress who
won a Tony for her Fosca, was reportedly frustrated to tears by the
titters that greeted her soulbaring efforts night after night.) Signature's
Passion by contrast may have succeeded mainly on the merits of its intimacy;
the chemistry between its leads was all but palpable in the tiny Signature
space, which literally didn't give the audience room to keep any distance
between itself and the events onstage.
Or maybe, just maybe, it's us: We can't find anything redemptive in
such an unlikely love story because we can't imagine loving anyone like
Fosca--or in loving anyone as fiercely, as awkwardly, as transgressively
as Fosca does. But surely that's our weakness, not the show's.