Signature Theatre is starting off its ’18-19 theater season with this beautiful and moving production of Passion and in the process are making me seriously reconsider my “I’m not really a Sondheim person” stance.
This unlikely/bizarre love triangle, set in 1860’s Italy, is one of those shows that has stuck with me and I’ve been forced to hunt down the soundtrack to try and recapture the wonderful experience I had in the theater. Listening to the soundtrack for the past week has reinforced the beauty and complexity of the music and moreover it highlights what a truly clever writer Mr. Sondheim is. Dammit. The opening duet between Giorgio and Clara, “Happiness”, foreshadows so much of what is to follow and one line in particular rather summarizes the plot for you:
“How quickly pity turns to love!”
The story, as a good story should, takes you on a journey of discovery, it challenges your perceptions of the characters and exposes their truer selves as the plot advances. When you first meet Giorgio and Clara they are young lovers unfairly separated by Giorgio’s military obligations. When you meet Fosca she is a pitiable victim of life’s unfairness. As the story progresses you find out…okay I’m not going to tell you that but none of these characters are what they seem at first blush. Clara is no dewy eyed ingenue, Giogio’s honor is not so burnished, and Fosca is culpable in her own misery. Their imperfections alternately make these character’s unlikable and pitiable and therefore lovable…if the lyric is true.
Of course the most flawed of the characters has to be the good Doctor who seems to have graduated from the Friar Lawrence School of Advice for the Lovelorn. Granted, unlike Romeo and Juliet, these are grown people allowing him to meddle in their lives and following his such bad advice; good judgment may just be the common failing of our characters.
Fosca’s character, for any modern woman, is especially hard to find likable. There are plenty of “Woman! Have some self-respect!” moments in her relentless pursuit of Giogio. Based on the many audible gasps, hrumphs and murmurings of the woman sitting next to me, I was not alone, if certainly more silent, in that feeling. Of course on the flip side, her determination to pursue what she wants regardless of the consequences (she stops short of boiling his rabbit, but not by much) would be quite progressive if her objective wasn’t a man.
Thankfully the triumvirate of Natascia Diaz, Steffanie Liegh and Claybourne Elder are more than capable of handling these complex characters, music and melodies. They are the core of the show and I have nothing but praise for those performances.
I would be remiss in not mentioning the scenic design for the show, it is one of my favorites in recent memory. How does one achieve a design that is both austere and lush? The minimal set below is crowned by the explosion of flowers above, the colorless firmament and the radiant ever after? The starkness of life versus the beauty we all seek? Whatever the intent is was beautifully done.
There are only a few weeks left to see this beautiful show, and as most really interesting pieces of work it may not be for everyone, but that could be said of many of Mr. Sondheim’s works. This is not a conventional love story but one worth seeing none the less.