Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Impassioned "Passion" at IWU

"Passion" is a bit of a weird duck. Stephen Sondheim's music is gorgeous, no question. But James Lapine's book... And the whole premise of the show...

This "Passion" is based on the film Passione d'Amore , directed by Ettore Scola, which was itself based on a novel called Fosca by Iginio Ugo Tarchetti. This means we can blame neither Sondheim nor Lapine for the plot, but we can blame Sondheim for picking up on it and wanting to write a musical about it.

"Passion" begins when a handsome army officer named Giorgio Bachetti is sent from Milan and the loving arms of his beautiful mistress, Clara, to a remote military outpost in the mountains. Giorgio doesn't feel he fits in with the other soldiers, who talk of nothing but women and horses, and he doesn't know what to make of strange screams coming from upstairs, above the dining room where everyone collects to eat together. Dr. Tambourri, the post's medical officer, explains that the screams are coming from Fosca, the cousin of their commanding officer, Colonel Ricci. Dr. Tambourri says that Fosca, a wretched and ugly woman, has been very ill for a long time, that she feels everything more strongly than normal people, as if her nerves are too close to the surface.

And this is where Giorgio's life begins to unravel. Because he misses his lovely mistress and is unhappy in general, he paces outside on the grounds, and upstairs, Fosca sees him and develops a mad passion for him. Mad being the operative word. Even though he makes it clear his heart is not free, Fosca begins coming down to dinner, sitting close to him, trying to engage him in conversation, and pushing herself at him in every way possible.

Giorgio tries to be kind, and then pushes her away as best he can, relenting only after the doctor argues that she is ill and will surely die unless Giorgio goes to her. With him at her bedside, Fosca survives. She now contends that she loves him completely, that no one will ever love him as deeply as she does, and at some level, at some point, Giorgio agrees that her love is so consuming and overwhelming he has no choice but to love her back.

And there's the rub. Do we really need a lush, darkly romantic musical about a man who succumbs to his stalker? Sondheim wrote that from a different angle in "Assassins," where John Hinkley sings about feeling fire, drinking poison, tearing his heart in two, if that’s what it takes to earn the love of Jodi Foster, the object of his obsession.

But Sondheim says that’s not what “Passion” means, that this is not a happily-ever-after for either the stalker or the stalkee. Instead, he’s said in interviews that it’s about how destructive love can be, and indeed, Giorgio does end up ruined, wrecked, alone.

I don’t have any answers for those who question the plot, and honestly, every time I’ve seen this show, the audience has laughed at Fosca and her smothering, ridiculous idea of love. It’s clearly a tough one to pull off, and kudos to Illinois Wesleyan and director Scott Susong for doing as well as they do.

Somebody decided that the production needed an Art Nouveau look, and it’s especially notable in Bridget Gavlin’s lovely costumes for Clara.

Kelly Rice’s set design, with a gallery used for multiple purposes and tables and beds that roll on and off at the speed of light, also works well, except for a silly little disc dropped behind Clara when she’s supposed to be in her boudoir. There’s no need for it, and the way it pops on and off is distracting.

Gary Echelmeyer’s lighting design plays a huge role, creating mood and storms as backdrops. The only weakness on the production side is the sound – there were microphone and volume issues throughout the show on opening night, and that was a shame. I’m not sure why there was a need for microphones in an intimate setting like IWU’s McPherson Theatre, especially since all of the voices were so good.

Maia Diaz sounds and looks beautiful as Clara, and Alex Pagels is sympathetic and strong as Giorgio. The chorus of soldiers is good, as well, with Michael Hansen’s Lieutenant Torasso a standout.

As Fosca, Sarah Bockel sings well, but it’s her acting that has to carry the burden of the show. Fosca is a pretty impossible character, this maddening woman who is physically repulsive, selfish and histrionic, and yet somehow loveable to Giorgio. Bockel is probably too pretty for the role, but she fully commits to the physical and emotional wretchedness, and she is every bit as intense as I remember Donna Murphy, who won a Tony for the original “Passion” on Broadway.

I’m not sure I’m ever going to be a fan of “Passion” – I feel too strongly about the distasteful nature of the premise – but IWU’s production certainly brought home the fact that the music is amazing and needs to be heard.

Performances continue until April 11th. For more information or to reserve tickets, click on the link at left.


  1. Julie and I go way back on Passion, and I can't say that it'll ever make it far up my list of favorites either -- if I'm not as definitely against it, there's still this odd disjuncture between what it seems to be trying to tell us and what I actually get from it. "This is what real passion is about, if you haven't felt like this then you haven't lived!" I beg to differ.

    And yet on my second viewing of the Broadway production, I sort of got it. I had just been through a breakup, one of those miserably unresolved ones... and I found that I could tune into the creepy masochistic side of it remarkably well. That whole "if I just relentlessly pursue and pester this person, he will finally see the light and love me as he ought to" aspect of it. Not that I actually did, or recommend it to anyone, but somewhere in our twisted psyches, we probably all have the potential for that kind of unhealthy obsession. The thing is, in my case it soon passed, but there it remains in Passion, held up for us to (I guess) admire.

    I've seen 3 different productions, each (I think) better than the last. On Broadway it was principally distinguished by Donna Murphy's truly marvelous Fosca. At Signature Theatre in Arlington VA, director Eric Schaeffer was able to hold the audience in a real spell in an environmental sort of staging (we found our seats by walking through a loggia), and it also removed the distracting nudity from the opening scene (as have most productions since, I believe). And at the Kennedy Center for the "Sondheim Celebration" Schaeffer perfected his directorial ideas with the help of a beautiful design and a near-ideal trio of principals: Michael Cerveris, Judy Kuhn with a welcome reinterpretation of Fosca as fragile from her illness but not visually ugly, and Rebecca Luker as a wonderfully complete Clara. I think that was as close as I'll ever come to liking the work.

  2. I liked it better this time than the first one. I think it may be that I was prepared for how repellent the story is, so I could just listen and watch. I also think that Jere Shea did not communicate that Giorgio is supposed to be smart. If there had been some indication that what Fosca liked was his brain, not just his exterior, I might've appreciated the "passion" more.

    I will say that IWU totally screwed up the nudity. It seemed that the director must've wanted it in there, but this Clara was not at all comfortable with it. We opened the scene with the two of them in bed, but her voice much too soft, plus she kept trying to arrange bedsheets as she moved so that her breasts were covered. It was awkward and obvious, and I think that (and a subsequent scene where Giorgio took off her corset and she held the corset to her front and did a similarly awkward slide sideways under the sheets to keep covered, even though about 80% of her boobs was already showing in the corset) the scene could easily have been played with her in a camisole and her bloomers and it would've seemed more passionate and open because she wouldn't have been so clearly uneasy about the skin she was showing. The actor who played Giorgio seemed fine with what he was asked to do, which was slide out of the bed, briefly show his butt as he put on his trou, and that was it. I think I might've erred on the side of making my actress comfortable and let her keep her lingerie on.

  3. One other thing -- I think what bothers me most about Fosca is how childish and ridiculous she is. I would like to smack her and all her enablers. She's not a child and Giorgio is not her "Make a Wish," you know? Just because she got dumped by a cad, she gets to act however she wants and ruin however many lives she wants? Like, she's the first person who ever got dumped?

    So I suppose that's the key to "Passion" -- making Fosca somehow sympathetic. Or at least finding someway to make people NOT laugh when Fosca makes her romantic moves. On Broadway, I definitely remember howls of laughter when it seems apparent they are about to do the deed. In this college production, it seemed they would not be consummating, as we say in the romance novel world, but simply spending the night in each other's arms. Not so much laughter although still a bit of incredulity.

    Oh, and the other key may be making it clear that Giorgio is already losing his mind before Fosca finds him on the train. Jere Shea was too healthy, too vital, too athletic or something. I totally missed the idea that he is supposed to be broken by the end. It seemed more that he was horrified he slept with the old crone and lost Clara. Or maybe I'm projecting what he should have felt...

  4. I recall that in the Kennedy Center production, Eric Shaeffer found a moment for Fosca that I hadn't seen before (of course it's now been 9 years and any reports of mine that I've saved don't mention this, so it's a question of whether my memory is to be trusted): that at some point in the later stretches when she apologizes to him, it's clear that she now realizes that all of her previous behavior was horrible, and that's what she's apologizing for. And they sort of start over with each other. If this whole memory is to be trusted, I'll say that it made the story much easier to take, because the musical wasn't endorsing her behavior. Cerveris (not generally a favorite of mine, I admit) also did much better than Jere Shea at giving us a complicated multilayered character.

    As to the nudity: I didn't realize that productions even attempted it any more -- but I suppose two later ones that I've seen by the same director aren't enough to generalize from! (Though I'm still a tad surprised that a university production, particularly a univ with religious affiliations, asked this of the actors.)

    Schaeffer let the lights come up on a post-coital situation, both of them partially dressed (she in a full-length dressing gown, in fact). Despite my devotion to nudity in the drama, I found that this made a world of difference -- rather than craning their necks to see if they could catch any good bits, the audience settled down and paid attention to what was being said (sung) and felt.

  5. By the way, although that's very pretty poster (I'm guessing that it, aside from the title, is lifted from an existing poster for something Art-Nouveau-ish), I can't see any special appropriateness for this story.

  6. They were definitely pushing the Art Nouveau thing (and I'm sure that's why they had that silly drop behind Clara when she was reading letters, to make her in her auburn Gibson Girl hair and dressing gown or camisole, look like an Art Nouveau illustration). But I don't see what that contributed to the story. Maybe they were trying to show how different Giorgio's life was in Milan from the military outpost. But I still don't think it added anything.

  7. One other thought about the Art Nouveau connection... I realized that the Broadway "Passion" was set in 1865, but this one looked very much 1890s in terms of the Art Nouveau stuff as well as the hair and costumes. Why bump it up 25 years? What does that add or change?

  8. Hi Julie,

    Full Disclosure: I worked on the show in some capacity (not the director). The choice to move it to the late 1890's was partly practical and partly artistic. We are a very small space with a very tight budget. Dresses from the 1860s were simply too expensive and too big. We also felt that the romantic curves of art nouveau and soft silhouette of the period suited the piece, especially, as you saw, as a contrast to the harshness of both Fosca and the military outpost.

    As for the script itself, I wish you could love it as I do! I think you have deep misunderstanding of the character or Fosca. You seem to overlook the pain of her illness, the loss of her family, the fragility in her that has left her broken. Of course she acts like a child. She has been treated like one for 10 years, wasting away in her bedroom with minimal contact with the outside world while enduring constant physical pain. As she says, no one has ever taught her how to love. When she meets Giorgio, a cultured, attractive man that she feels a real connection to, she does not know how to act or how to curb her affections. Hers is a kind of love few will ever experience, all consuming, all forgiving, and ultimately fatal. That strength of emotion brings both Giorgio and Fosca to their respective ends, however,
    Fosca's ability to love that hard and Giorgio's ability to eventually receive it is truly beautiful.

    I am also interested in your objection to the dark nature of the premise. What do you think is appropriate material to base a play off of (this is meant not as an attack, but as a very intriguing question)?

    Thanks for coming to our show and I hope you continue to be an engaged audience member at Illinois Wesleyan!

  9. Thanks for commenting! It's great to have the inside scoop, and I really *was* wondering about the time shift. I hadn't considered it might've been done for practical reasons. Regency would've made for even smaller gowns, plus then it could've tied in with a Gothic feel, with thunder and lightning and the crazy lady upstairs... Ooops. That's Jane Eyre, and she's not Regency. Never mind!

    Anyway, I wouldn't say that I object to the darkness of the premise. I like dark. Even within the Sondheim oeuvre, I love "Sweeney Todd" and "Assassins" and they're both quite dark in terms of concept. To me, the premise of "Passion" is not really all that dark. It's just... Unpleasant. Unconvincing. My notion of the premise is "If you love someone hard enough, they have no choice but to love you back." Or, as you put it, "Fosca's ability to love that hard and Giorgio's ability to eventually receive it is truly beautiful."

    That isn't beautiful to me. It's unbelievable, I guess. Sondheim handled the same obsessive love quite differently in "Assassins," with Hinckley and Squeaky. It's clear there that their brand of obsession isn't really love. It's madness. When Fosca first fixes on Giorgio, she sees only his outside, and she knows he likes books. But her passion for him doesn't strike me as real or deep. I thought the IWU production did a better job with that than the original production, because Alex Pagels communicated the intelligence and depth in Giorgio rather better than Jere Shea, to my mind. But even so... Lapine hasn't really written anything to show why Fosca loves him at the onset, except that he pays attention to her. And he's hot. That doesn't really seem like love to me. It seems too shallow, too based on the external. I realize that Fosca represents Giorgio being able to see past the external to return her love, but *she* doesn't when she fixes on Giorgio. So I'm not sure that "love is blind" thing is happening.

    As far as Fosca and whether it's reasonable that she should be so childish... I don't know. I guess I don't find it convincing that she never knew love (she seemed to have very nice parents, who may've been overly indulgent, but loving, nonetheless) and even if she didn't, that's no excuse to turn into a narcissist. As I said before, she's not a child and Giorgio is not her "Make a Wish." I guess I don't appreciate people who think they get to be hateful and awful and make other people miserable, and that's okay because of a bad childhood or a bad relationship. I mean, sympathy for her situation is all well and good, but that doesn't mean that she gets whatever she wants, that she can willy nilly (gotta love anything willy nilly) ruin his life, and all he can do is just fold and return her love.

    Nope. That just isn't appealing to me. It's the old stalker/stalkee thing (see Hinckley and Squeaky, above -- I'm not even going to bring up Judge Turpin in "Sweeney") and it's, well, ugly. Not dark. Just unconvincing and not pulling me in the way I want it to, to be swept along with these people's story. I don't require that they be perfect, but they have to be appealing enough for me to want to know what happens to them. I would say "Sweeney" does that beautifully -- yes, he's nuts and obsessive, but we understand it.

    I think it's telling that the audience so often laughs when Fosca tries to physically make a move toward Giorgio. They find her a figure of fun more than pity or empathy. I've also heard her described as a monster, but I don't think that's so. But I do find myself wanting to slap her and tell her to grow up. That's not good in a mood piece like this.

    Oh well -- just some more scattered thoughts on the fascinating subject of "Passion"!