Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 15, 2019
The Rose Tattoo by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Trip Cullman. Set design by Mark Wendland. Costume design by Clint Ramos. Lighting design by Ben Stanton. Original music and sound design by Fitz Patton. Projection design by Lucy Mackinnon. Hair and wig design by Tom Watson. Make-up design by Joe Dulude II. Fight choreographer Thomas Schall. Dialect coach Charlotte Fleck. Italian dramaturg Marco Calvani. Original music, arrangements, and music direction by Jason Michael Webb. Cast: Cassie Beck, Alexander Bello, Tina Benko, Andréa Burns, Susan Cella, Emun Elliott, Paige Gilbert, Greg Hildreth, Isabella Iannelli, Jacob Michael Laval, Ellyn Marie Marsh, Carolyn Mignini, Portia, Ella Rubin, Jennifer Sanchez, Constance Shulman, Burke Swanson, and Marisa Tomei.
Beyond the play itself, the best reason to purchase a ticket is the golden opportunity to catch a molto bella performance by Marisa Tomei in the central role of Serafina delle Rose, the self-deluded Sicilian-American widow who unexpectedly finds herself reawakening to love and sexual fervor when a stranger (Emun Elliott, a perfect foil for Ms. Tomei) lands on her doorstep.
But before we get to the romance part, which occupies much of a delightful second act, we do have to maneuver past Act I, which is filled with the sort of outré characters that inhabit so many of Williams's plays. Here they have been transferred from the torrid, steamy world of New Orleans to the Gulf coast of Mississippi. It is a place that, as imagined by set designer Mark Wendland, has the appearance of a full-room installation at the Museum of Modern Art, perhaps a retrospective display by an unschooled folk artist.
The first thing you'll likely notice are the plastic pink flamingos, countless numbers of them spread in several rows along the back wall. Surrounding them on three sides is a continuous projection (by Lucy Mackinnon) of the rolling ocean. Moving in closer downstage, the design becomes even more impressionistic, with Serafina's house barely registering as such and dominated by an assemblage of devotional candles, a statue of the Virgin Mary, and an urn which, we learn, contains the ashes of her beloved late husband Rosario.
Where other directors might have attempted to subvert or lessen the impact of the play's parade of minor characters who roam about like drop-ins from a neighboring circus, here Trip Cullman gives them their full turn in the spotlight and encourages the cast to live up to the adage that "there are no small parts." There is Serafina's nosy, eye-patch wearing, goat-owning neighbor (Constance Shulman), whom Serafina refers to as "The Strega," and accuses of casting the evil eye on her. There are the fun-loving Flora and Bessie (Portia and Paige Gilbert), who stop by to pick up a blouse that Serafina, an unlicensed seamstress, has been sewing for Flora. There is Estelle Hohengarten (Tina Benko), the loudly assertive blackjack dealer who, as it is known by everyone except for Serafina, had a long-term affair with Serafina's adored husband.
Each of these characters, lovingly dressed in Clint Ramos's idiosyncratic costumes, actually serves an important purpose, both by providing plot exposition and by creating the atmosphere of the place Serafina calls home, where old world religion and superstition collide with Americana. There's even an Italian-speaking "Greek chorus" of black-draped women moving in and out against a steady stream of noisy young children running along the beachfront. And there is the salesman (Greg Hildreth), whose brief but annoying appearance serves as a lead-in to Serafina's introduction to Alvaro Mangiacavallo, the stranger with the strange name (it means "eat a horse") who will change her life.
Despite the stage filled with an array of spirited, eccentric characters, we never lose sight of Marisa Tomei. Through words, facial expression, and body movement, she totally inhabits Serafina, conveying every feeling and impulse that Tennessee Williams has instilled in her or even hinted at in the role. She can be consumed by grief, frightened by her need to care for herself and her teenage daughter, thoroughly lost and confused, or enraged, until she finds herself staring at the man with the body of her husband and the head, as she says, of a clown.
From that moment on, Alvaro's hot body, his clownish bravado, and his tender heart work their magic on Serafina. If she ever had been bewitched by her neighbor's evil eye, that spell is broken. The truth, her own nature, and Alvaro have set her free. These two lead performances come together like a grandly choreographed, delectably sweet and comic ballet, and they are beautifully mirrored by Ella Rubin as Serafina's daughter Rosa and Burke Swanson as the young sailor she has fallen for on the day of her high school graduation. This production of The Rose Tattoo happily enfolds all of its elements into its loving arms, flamingos, witches, and all.