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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Tennessee Williams' Orpheus Descending is a Hellish, Realistic Drama

Also see Richard's reviews of Henry IV, Part One and Part Two and Red

Orpheus Descending
Nadia Tarzi and Alex Garcia
The Actors Theatre of San Francisco is presenting Tennessee Williams' neglected masterpiece Orpheus Descending through August 28th. This is one of the playwright's later plays, and it is considered his most complicated and symbolic. There has been criticism of the play because of its extreme amount of symbolism. Williams rewrote the piece from his first professional play called Battle of Angels in the 1940s. Orpheus Descending finally received its premiere on March 21, 1957, at the Martin Beck Theatre with Cliff Robertson as Val, Maureen Stapleton as Lady and Lois Smith as Carol. It had a very short run due to the grimness of the play.

I first saw the performance at the Martin Beck and, for its time, it was a shocking drama involving a young man wearing a snakeskin jacket and his relationship with the repressed wife of a bully. Peter Hall revived the drama in 1989 at the Neil Simon Theatre with Kevin Anderson as Val, Vanessa Redgrave as Lady and Anne Twomey as Carol. This was a stunning production with Marcia Lewis and Tammy Grimes in supporting roles. Helen Mirren played Lady in London, and recently Matt Bogart and Chandler Vinton played the leads at the Arena Stage in Washington D.C.

United Artists purchased the rights to the play and hired Tennessee Williams to help write the screenplay. The film was released as The Fugitive Kind in 1959 with Marlon Brando and Anna Magnani. The title was changed since they felt most people would think this was a classic Greek tragedy and would stay away in droves. UA took the title The Fugitive Kind from one of Williams' first plays while he was in school in St. Louis. (That play was produced for the first time by Marin Theatre several years ago.)

Orpheus Descending is, on the surface, the Orpheus/Eurydice tale from Greek mythology. It is the modern telling of the myth of Orpheus who descended into hell to rescue his wife Eurydice, a journey doomed to failure. Williams' concept of hell is a small Southern town infested with gossip, hypocrisy and racism. Eurydice is now Lady Torrance (Nadia Tarzi), a middle aged Italian immigrant entrapped by a dying husband who is the manipulative incarnation of evil. Jake (John Krause) is old, worn down and still feared.

Actors Theatre is presenting a fiery production of this masterpiece, with a gifted ensemble of actors. The Southern accents of all of the characters are right on the mark. Alex Garcia (student of Foothill Theatre Conservatory) is like a young Marlon Brando as Val. He has Brando's techniques, down to the stare and speech inflections. He brings to the role a blend of na´ve and boastful assurance. He never changes this mood, even to the point when he is accepting the applause from the audience. Undoubtedly, he is a method actor we will see more often in the future.

Garcia's Val is a young guitar-playing hustler in a snakeskin jacket. His car breaks down outside of town and he comes asking for a job in Lady's mercantile store. Val has just turned thirty and he wants to change his life by attempting to settle down in the small town. His arrival causes a commotion among the town women, but he is too reticent and cool to submit to their attentions. Carol Cultrere (Niki Yapo), the outrageous wealthy exhibitionist, tries the hardest. She knows something about Val's past before initiating her attempted seduction.

Nadia Tarzi (Associated member of Actors Theatre and recently appeared in After the Fall) gives a splendid performance as the tormented heroine trapped in her own private hell. She is entirely convincing, with a wonderful Italian accent. Niki Yapo (After the Fall, Snake in the Fridge) as Carol is spunky and energizing as the bawdy vagabond who tries to seduce Val. She looks like a forerunner of the Goth look. Hannah Marks (The Day They Shot John Lennon) is outstanding as the visionary artist who always seems blinded by her visions that border on the religious.

Joe Madero makes a good gruff Sheriff Talbott and John Krause is the personification of evil as the cantankerous Jake. Padma Moyer and Delinda Dane have the perfect down home southern accent of two busy bodies.

Scott Agar Jaicks' set is a typical dry goods store, in great detail, in a small southern town. Even the stock looks real. Director Jean Shelton's careful staging allows the main actors to slowly build, giving great credence to William's lyrical prose.

Orpheus Descending runs through August 28 at Actor Theatre of San Francisco, 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-296-9179 or visit www.actorstheatresf.org.

The company will open their 2004-2005 season with Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in September.


Photo: Scott Dong


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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