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THEATER REVIEW

Call it: 'Orpheus' aspiring

In Venice, this fable of rebirth is ambitious but not outstanding.

October 09, 2003|Rob Kendt | Special to The Times

All Tennessee Williams plays are like operas without music, but few have quite the hot-blooded, primal sweep of his turgid 1955 melodrama, "Orpheus Descending." This fable about a guitar-picking drifter who blows into a Southern town and romances a middle-age Italian woman is perilously close to self-parody -- "Lady Chatterley's Lover" spiced with Gothic apocalypse. Done right, though, it can be a heady, shattering cocktail.

Director Elina de Santos' new production nails the tangled relationships and mines the play's wicked humor but fails to build its steadily encroaching threat of fateful violence.

From her first entrance on Stephanie Kerley Schwartz's lived-in set, Lady (Marilyn Fox, in a beautifully arced performance) exudes exasperation with her sickly husband, Jabe, with her gossipy circle of fair-weather friends and with life in general. But she gradually reawakens under the sway of the dubious but undeniable young newcomer Val (Greg Vignolle).

Also stirred by Val are Carol, the town's jittery outcast (a movingly haggard but miscast Alley Mills, whom costumer Audrey Eisner decks in anachronistic hippie/punk duds), and Vee, a religious nut played by Sharron Shayne as sweetly dizzy rather than slightly disturbing, thus draining some crucial suspense.

Giving a clearer sense of the dangerous stakes of Lady's predicament is Brad Queenquist's Jabe, who deeply chills his few scenes.

Also standing out are Clarinda Ross as a dishy loudmouth, Dan Verdin as a redneck sheriff, Diane Hurley as a cranky nurse and Jake Arnette as Lady's former beau.

Williams' denouement is so cataclysmic that perhaps only the graphic realism of film -- or some crashing chords from an orchestra and high notes from a dying soprano -- could do it justice. Still, Ed Cha's otherwise fine lighting falters here, as does the tinny sound design (credited to Glass Tea).

On the strength of its central performances, this "Orpheus" does hit home.

It ought to burn down the house.

*

'Orpheus Descending'

Where: Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice

When: Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m.

Ends: Dec. 7

Price: $20-$23.50

Info: (310) 822-8392

Running time: 3 hours, 10 minutes

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