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Photo: Margot Schulman
Photo: Margot Schulman

Signature Theatre Stirs Actors and Audiences with Passion

While an iconic work in the pantheon of Stephen Sondheim’s contributions to musical theatre, Passion is admittedly not an airy, feel-good musical. The hour-and-50-minute, one-act play asks much of its actors and its audiences as it tells the timeless story of wavering between the love of two different people.

The new production, at Signature Theatre through September 23, is staged to mirror a runway. The audience will be split down the middle, facing one another while absorbing the characters’ anguish as they’re torn between multiple outcomes throughout the play.

The musical, which made its debut in 1994 and holds the title of shortest-running show to win a Tony Award for Best Musical, is based on the recounting of an Italian author’s affair with an ailing woman while he served in the military. Giorgio (Claybourne Elder) swings from a dangerous pendulum between his carefully arranged relationship with his beautiful – and married – mistress Clara (Steffanie Leigh) and the allure of the reclusive, plain Fosca (Natascia Diaz).

Signature Theatre Associate Artistic Director Matthew Gardiner brings an intimacy and fierce intensity to the production, challenging audiences to face themselves and their perceptions of physical beauty. Every decision feels very deliberate, from splitting the stage in half to emphasize Giorgio’s gravitation toward both women to the unmoving lens on his transformation over the course of the play as the actor never once leaves the stage.

“It’s very dynamic,” says Diaz (West Side Story, Threepenny Opera) of the play’s staging. “It already denotes one side and another – and being pulled in multiple directions. That is the dynamic. Giorgio is being pulled between these two women. It visually exists in a physical format that enhances that energy. Matthew is able to make things that are tangible and real, but it has this ethereal quality to it.”

At first blush, the intricacies of the story may seem dated. A sickly, homely Fosca isolates herself from her surroundings and lives vicariously through books. Giorgio takes a military post far away from his beautiful Clara, but the lovers stay connected through impassioned letters. Though Passion is set in the 19th century, the painful missteps of romance and navigating the concept of monogamy are still very much familiar to us in 2018. As Elder (Sunday in the Park with George, Bonnie and Clyde) prepared for his role, he too found the subject matter relatable.

“The novel was written in 1870 and as I read it, I thought to myself, ‘What a fascinating mediation on love and obsession, affection and passion,’” Elder says. “I’ve definitely found myself in the novel – like, ‘I have done that before, I have felt that way about a person before’ – which is very interesting. The feelings behind it all are every bit as contemporary as they would have been in the 1800s.”

Fosca is widely regarded as one of the most unlikeable characters in modern theatre, making it a complex role for any actor. But much like Elder, Diaz looked past the surface and found common ground with the young woman, physical and emotional afflictions and all. While preparing to take on what she called the largest role she’s ever played, Diaz says she grew to feel as though she knew Fosca.

“I looked at the page and thought, ‘I could have written this,’ meaning that I understand her completely. I not only understand her, but I love her. It’s the strangest thing to play a character as large and as previously judged as this. It’s just like any other slander case. They don’t know her until they’ve read it and seen what’s at the center of her soul.”

The polarizing nature of Fosca lies not as much in her physical unattractiveness as it does in the fact that she embodies “pure, unadulterated feeling.” At the heart of the play, though, is Giorgio’s struggle between two women, two ways of life, his head and his heart.

The audience’s disdain for Fosca may be the initial visceral reaction, but the production holds another element that makes Giorgio’s role equally if not more so emotionally taxing. As the common thread that binds every character in Passion together, it makes sense to have Elder remain onstage for the entire performance – though the impressive feat does have its own physical and emotional challenges for the actor.

“What Giorgio learns in this play is astonishing and very profound,” Elder says. “I connect to it greatly and I find it very emotional, and therefore it’s hard. As actors, it costs something emotionally every time you do a play. You give a piece of yourself to it. I’m grateful this run is only a few months, because living in this for a long time would be very challenging. I would need a lot of therapy. It challenges me to really face myself.”

For audiences who are ready to experience a production that asks questions both timeless and timely, Signature is ready to take you on a journey in their intimate, inventive black-box space. You may learn something about yourself right alongside Giorgio.

Passion is not a show that gets done very often in regional theatre, because it’s not a big draw,” he continues. “It’s complicated, it’s emotional, it’s dark at times. It’s not a laugh-a-minute night out, so you need an audience that’s going to get excited and support it. I have absolutely no doubt that [Signature] is the best possible place to do this show. I feel very, very lucky to get to be a part of this.”

Stephen Sondheim’s Passion runs through September 23 at Signature Theatre. Tickets are $40-$104. Pride Night is September 7, Discussion Night is September 12 and Open Captioning will be held on September 16. Learn more at www.sigtheatre.org.

Signature Theatre: 4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington, VA; 703-820-9771; www.sigtheatre.org

Srangerer Things

Stranger-er Things: Live Scoring at Union Stage

Television is in the zeitgeist now more than ever. Streaming platforms fiercely compete to create the most gripping content, old favorites are widely available and television is accessible from nearly any connected device – Merriam Webster even added the term “binge-watch” to the dictionary in 2017.

Even if one consumes episodes alone, as most binge-watchers do, the solitude ends when episodes do. Then begins the highly social and ritualistic debrief via family, friends and forums, rife with speculation about the next episode, season or unanswered questions. Chances are you and whatever quasi-acquaintance you’re straining to spark a conversation with both share enthusiasm for at least one of the popular shows available.

Regardless, it’s more appealing to hear about whatever show someone is infatuated with than it is to discuss the weather or another bread-and-butter conversational default. All of this engagement with the medium makes it natural to wonder what its limits are.

The newly-opened Union Stage at District Wharf recently hosted an event that explored such a topic: Stranger-er Things: A Live Scoring. Held on January 16, the event marked a joint effort between DMV record label VoidLife and DC art collective Uptown Art House, featured three local bands live-soundtracking three popular TV shows: Dr. Who, Twin Peaks and The Twilight Zone.

VoidLife Founder Asher Meerovich and guitarist in The Void House Band says Stranger-er Things was inspired by a friend who had organized a similar event, but with movies instead of television. The idea also fit with VoidLife’s goal of creating unique experiences that encourage the audience to think outside of the box, he says. More importantly, the concept felt appealing enough to attract an audience amid a sea of alternatives – including staying home and watching Netflix.

“The event is on a weekday, so we wanted to create something after work-friendly rather than standing on your feet for three hours,” Meerovich says. “It’s also an effort to create a new experience at a music venue that is easy to process.”

Judging by the vigor with which the crowded venue greeted Meerovich, who was also the emcee, when he took the stage, they bought in. After a brief introduction that included a joke about a music-based cryptocurrency, he cleared the way for Uptown Renaissance – a supergroup of Uptown Art House affiliates – to kick the night off.

The group played music over the first two of a six-episode seminal Dr. Who storyline, “Genesis of the Daleks.” The episodes are set in a bleak and war-torn landscape – complete with bunkers and trenches – and follow three travelers who are captured and confronted with death. Throughout, the music serves as a stand-in for dialogue, clarifying and amplifying the emotions viewers should feel.

At one point, a gas attack occurs and causes mayhem. The two men in the group are dragged into an adjacent bunker by soldiers, while the sole woman is left behind, incapacitated. Disillusioned, associative vocals meditate on life and convey the captives’ loopy, chemically-induced unease as they are led deep into the concrete annals. The woman is eventually captured as well – by a separate group – after a slow pursuit made menacing by a swell of swampy, sticky synths.

The episode comes to a head when both the men and the woman face respective forms of apocalyptic weaponry at the hands of their captors. The lyrics in these scenes slowly turn from fatalistic to cautionary, referencing nuclear war and playing on the danger of living silently. Once we’re gone, we have no option but to be quiet – so we may as well make noise now.

By episode’s end, the three travelers escape death. Elated and distorted vocals launch the “outro” before giving way to determined freestyle mumble rapping and finally fading out. Meerovich comes out, drums up additional applause for the Uptown Renaissance, and transitions from emcee to guitarist for the next act: The Void House Band.

The Twilight Zone is the show, “Time Enough at Last” is the episode and Henry Bemis is the character. Emptily pleasant music bellows, befitting Bemis’ bank job. The music – and his expression – shift in excitement as he shirks, surreptitiously indulging in his true passion: reading. But, of course, his boss catches him. Poor Bemis can’t catch a break at home either. Abrasive guitar riffs interrupt him reading in his armchair and signal danger.

Bemis’ wife enters the room. The music melts into full-on sorrow as she – with a malicious joy – confiscates and tears up his reading material. Fed up, Bemis absconds, literature in tow, to the tranquility of his employer’s large bank vault. He skims and disinterestedly discards a newspaper with a headline mentioning an H-bomb. Just then, a massive explosion rollicks the vault.

Bemis climbs to the surface to utter devastation. Empathetic guitars wail and cry out as Bemis searches fruitlessly for survivors. A revolver is all he finds. Barrel to his head, he notices mounds of intact books surrounding the razed library. But before he can read a word, his thick spectacles shatter on the ground. The room’s lighting dances as the camera zooms out on a blind, utterly alone Bemis. The band launches into an existentially dreadful, doom metal-tinged “outro,” continuing to mirror Bemis’ emotions until the end.

The last act is Zack Be, scoring “Part 8,” a difficult-to-follow pastiche of an episode from last year’s Twin Peaks miniseries reboot. Zack Be opens with an interpretation of the original Twin Peaks theme music. After a grizzly murder, the Nine Inch Nails appear on the screen. Zack Be’s vocals sync up with Trent Reznor’s onscreen singing, nesting a cover within their score.

It’s then 1945 and the camera creeps toward the mushroom cloud from the world’s first nuclear bomb test. A violent blend of noise and distortion blare as the camera burrows into the heart of the vicious cloud.

A gaunt man in a tuxedo and a bejeweled woman watch this explosion from a castle atop a rocky monolith protruding from the sea. He begins spewing golden, cosmic dust from his mouth. It forms into an orb, and with the support of shimmering synths, the woman feeds the orb into a pipe that shoots it to the earth.

Fast forward to 1956: a strange creature emerges from a shell amid groaning, animalistic guitar noodling. We then see a teenage couple stop and grab a face-up penny as the band conjures a muggy, woodsy summer night with cricketing, ribbiting synths. The couple kisses one another goodbye and spacey drums capture the blissful melancholy of perfect night’s end.

The episode closes with a series of graphic murders in a radio station. The assailant then hijacks the radio, and deranged but contained vocals overdub his salvo. Radio listeners in various locations, including the previously mentioned teen girl, fall unconscious. As the episode ends, the strange creature from earlier climbs into the slumbering girl’s mouth and the music fades back to the Twin Peaks theme. Meerovich then takes the stage to applause and thanks the crowd once more.

The whole experience felt wonderfully off-kilter – wait service and strangers are not exactly staples of my television consumption. But what was most interesting to me was trying to process what I was watching. Television with a cooler, louder soundtrack? A concert with excellent visuals? I’m still unsure. For Meerovich, that was exactly the point: to break down barriers between different forms of media and inspire others to do the same.

“I want the audience to be like, ‘Yeah that was weird,’” he says. “But it would be even cooler if people could walk away and say, ‘Maybe the boundaries aren’t so crazy, maybe I should do what I want.’”

For more information about VoidLife’s upcoming live scoring events, click here.

Union Stage: 740 Water St. SW, DC; 877-987-6487; www.unionstage.com