Amazing Journey

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Mad Love
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 to celebrate.

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 with him.

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 series.)

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 major territory.)

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 transformation.

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.


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