Opening night of the Custom Made Theater Co.’s production of “Passion” — a Tony Award-winning musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the internationally acclaimed genius behind shows such as “Into the Woods” and “West Side Story” — brimmed with warmth, excitement and enthusiastic chatter. Theater artists and lovers seemed to spill endlessly into the socially conscious, community-minded theater’s lobby until, finally, they settled into their seats in beaming, anticipatory silence to face off with the play’s set — a yellow canvas oil painting backdrop with a jagged blue mountain range, draped behind a square wood table and stiff-backed chair.
As the first haunting strains of melody seep from the production’s live cellist, flutist and pianist, the male lead, Giorgio (John Melis), staggers in, clutching a worn bathrobe around himself and a mysterious box to his chest; the corners of the stage slip into soft darkness, subtly shrinking the already intimate space, and the audience is pulled into Sondheim’s irresistible, utterly unforgettable masterpiece.
It is 1863 in war-torn Italy. Giorgio, a handsome military captain, is unwillingly distanced from his “happy” love affair with the beautiful but married Clara (Juliana Lustenader) and stationed at a remote military outpost. The base is “hell, living hell” in the words of Giorgio and the whole ensemble, filled with the maddening chatter of “pompous little men in uniform” and mysterious strangled screams. Giorgio soon discovers that the startling cries of distress belong to Seniora Fosca (Heather Orth), an ailing, unabashedly emotional woman who falls in deep, obsessive love with Giorgio and pursues him relentlessly.
Interlaced with heart-aching, lilting Sondheim melodies, “Passion” pushes our expectations of love, and a woman’s role in pursuing and receiving love, to extreme limits.
When Fosca steps haltingly out to meet Giorgio for the first time, clutching a drab brown shawl around her shoulders, the room seems to fall completely still. In her tight bun, makeup-free face and plain practical dress, Fosca sharply contrasts the sashaying gait and intricately twisted blonde hair of Giorgio’s beautifully gowned current lover Clara.
Only a few niceties about borrowed books have been exchanged between Giorgio and Fosca before Fosca shuts down all conversation, shuddering violently and letting out an almost guttural, vibrato-filled line: “I do not read to search for truth. … The truth is hardly what I need.” Then, in the absolute quiet of the theater, Fosca trails off softly, “I read to dream.”
The “truth” Seniora Fosca seeks shelter from in books seems to be synonymous with the world’s societally accepted modes of being, established by the play’s lively and engaging ensemble. Sassy housemaids and bored, uniformed soldiers flip disconcertingly back and forth between jovial, humorous “military gossip” and stone-faced, echoed reinforcements of recently sung oppressive lyrics, such as “a woman is a flower, whose purpose is to please.”
As might be expected, true love is a fiercely contested subject throughout “Passion”; it is ultimately defined in Giorgio’s last song “No One Has Ever Loved Me” as being “unconcerned with being returned, no wisdom, no judgment, no caution, no blame.” Throughout the production, Fosca might suddenly grasp Giorgio’s hand to her lips for a passionate kiss and grovel at his feet, or boldly enact unreciprocated public displays of affection — expressions of love commonly ascribed to male-identifying characters.
Audience members must contend with this powerful assertion and the dramatic upending of such ingrained gender tropes. How these subversions function while enveloped in Sondheim’s gorgeously complex harmonies naturally yields strong reactions.
Heather Orth, the actress portraying Seniora Fosca, spoke to The Daily Californian after the night’s production. “(This show) just pushes people really hard,” she said. “We’ve had people every night who laugh at it; we’ve had people every night who I hear crying.”
The Custom Made Theater Co.’s commitment to producing affordable, intimate experiences that “awaken social consciousness” and emphasize the “bond between the artist and audience” has clearly paid off on the opening night of “Passion.” The play is a must see because, like its powerful and compelling characters, it demands without “reason, mercy, pride or shame” the hardest things first: one’s heart, attention and care.