‘Orpheus Descending’ opened at UC Irvine’s Studio Theater with an explosion on Thursday, March 2.
I am always a little hesitant when I go see a Tennessee Williams production for fear that it will be taken out of context completely.
However, I was pleasantly surprised with director Amanda McRaven’s interpretation of Williams’ play.
The adaptation of this complicated play shows devotion to Williams’ vision, but for once is not an example of slavish devotion to a preceding text. The production of ‘Orpheus Descending’ is decadent and unruly, unabashedly sexual and deliberately unrealistic.
Everyone and everything involved contributes to the balancing act of realism and exaggeration, creating in the process a universe impossible to accept as literal but so heartbreakingly powerful in its emotions that we cannot deny its truth.
The colors, done mostly in reds and purples, imply the complex, almost insane elements of the play. The set was created with painstaking detail, from the crooked stairs to the stained red stage, and it was certainly noted by the audience.
McRaven, fascinated with the story of Orpheus, suggests that unlike ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ and ‘The Glass Menagerie,’ ‘Orpheus Descending’ is a ‘messy piece’ that ‘meanders through layers of both overt and obscure biblical and mythological imagery, characters who trail off, and stunning language that seems to be in place for the mere sake of it.’ The play is, as the director suggests, ‘passionately human and unapologetically sensual.’
The Southern setting lends to the elemental themes that are Tennessee Williams. ‘Orpheus Descending’ is a play about the power of passion and imagination, and the need to redeem life and return it to meaning.
The story is set in a mercantile store in a small Southern town marked by conformity, sexual frustration, narrowness and racism. Into the scene steps Val (Benjamin Mathes). Val is a young man with a guitar, a snakeskin jacket, a tainted past and undeniable erotic energy and appeal. He secures a job in the dry goods store run by a troubled woman named Lady (Kyra Zagorsky) whose elderly husband, Jabe Torrance (Jake Dogias) is slowly dying.
The play deals with a passion for life, its repression and its attempted recovery. Some of the characters symbolize life and some symbolize death, while others are in the narrow space in between.
Lady has a disturbed past and passions of her own. She is attracted to Val and to life as an antidote to her loveless, lifeless marriage. The play describes the awakening of passion, love and life, and its tragic consequences for Val and Lady.
The colorful cast of characters, who range from town gossips to visionaries, did very well as an ensemble in creating the repressed, yet somewhat magical community in which they live.
However, my favorite performance was given by Christa Mathis who played Carol Cutrere. Mathis has the last lines of the play: ‘Wild things leave their skins behind.’ Her passionate character represents a spiritual outcast, an untamed life that yearns to break free of societal restrictions.
For Williams, ‘Orpheus Descending’ is about trying to live bravely and honestly in a fallen world. The play is replete with lush, poetic dialogue and imagery. Unlike the text and previous productions, the UCI stage presentation opens with dramatic movement and picks up power as the characters are developed and the play moves to its climax.
The production demonstrates once more for the Claire Trevor School of the Arts that there are some incredibly talented people walking around our campus. The music, the costumes, the set and the makeup was all done by UCI students who brought to life the genius that is Tennessee Williams.
This American classic is one of Williams’ most sensual and underrated plays. I felt lucky to have the opportunity to have seen this play. It shows, I think, how much remains to be explored in the world of art when we look just a bit below the surface.