Off-Off-Broadway Theater Review: ORPHEUS DESCENDING (Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival at St John’s Lutheran Church)

by Dmitry Zvonkov on May 1, 2016

in Theater-New York

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WILLIAMS ASCENDING

Irene Glezos delivers a lovely, stirring performance as Lady in Austin Pendleton’s staging of Tennessee Williams’ masterpiece Orpheus Descending. A force of nature, Lady says and does things almost in spite of herself. A prisoner of her childlike sincerity, she is at once witty, ironic, funny, melodramatic, all almost without intending to be, as though an inner engine which she can’t really control is driving her. Ms. Glezos captures this essence of her character in its many details with magnificent nuance.

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A newly reformed “entertainer” from New Orleans, sporting a snakeskin jacket, carrying a guitar and simmering with animalistic sexuality, Val (Todd d’Amour) finds himself stranded in a small Southern town full of sexually repressed, violently bigoted, jealous, gossipy, ignorant, frightened, hypocritical God-fearing Christians. Broke, he gets a job at a dry goods store owned by Jabe Torrance (Keir Dullea), a stingy and sadistic bedridden old man; the store is run by his middle-aged Sicilian wife Lady. As a girl, Lady came to the town with her father, who built an orchard, which was subsequently burned with him in it by townsfolk after he made the mistake of selling liquor to “niggers.” After that Jabe bought Lady for cheap and she’s been miserable ever since. Until she meets Val.

Beth Bartley and Randi Sobol. Photo by Ride Hamilton.

Mr. Pendleton’s spare staging at St. John’s Lutheran Church, with little in the way of set and lighting, and with only rudimentary blocking, succeeds in bringing us closer to the essences of characters and story. Without a complicated design or stylistics a special kind of intimacy is created; I was riveted for the entire intermission-free two-and-a-half-hours. The show’s rawness also makes it impossible to escape the fact that the mid-20th century issues the play is concerned with — the small, scared and brutal isolationist mentality of a certain kind of white American Southerner — are alive and flourishing today. And although Mr. Pendleton lets us off the hook at the horrific climax a little too quickly, conceptually his staging is a success.

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There are a few flaws in the execution. Some of the performances don’t quite resonate with that satisfying click or perfection, especially near the beginning. But this relatively minor issue will likely resolve itself as the run continues. Beth Bartley’s portrayal of the spoiled, progressive, rebellious party girl Carol feels a bit too general. But most unfortunate is Mr. d’Amour, who seems to be tragically miscast: short and muscular, he has an impish, desperate quality, and when he says “I can burn a woman down” it seems unlikely. An energetic and capable actor, Mr. d’Amour puts so much effort, so much oomph into his portrayal, squeezing everything out of himself, that the brute force of his performance is enough to keep one engaged. But ultimately it’s like watching an outclassed boxer who keeps coming and coming round after round hoping to connect with that one impossible knockout punch but never does.

Additional cast: Randi Sobol, Brenda Currin, James Heatherly, Skid Maher, Karen Lynn Gorney, Penny Lynn White, David Pendleton, Mia Dillon, Tom Drummer, Michael P. Sullivan, Lou Liberatore, and Michele Tauber.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAphotos by Ride Hamilton and John B. Barrois

Orpheus Descending
in association with the
Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival
St John’s Lutheran Church
81 Christopher Street
ends on May 14, 2016
for tickets, visit PTWF

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