Orpheus ascends, but not very high

June 15, 2004, midnight | By Josh Gottlieb-Miller | 20 years ago

The theater is incurably obvious. When two characters of opposite sexes lock eyes on stage and everyone else stops, chances are they like each other. When a mysterious stranger makes googly eyes at some of the "quiet town's" taken women, their husbands are going to be at least a little upset. And when Arena Stage does a Tennessee Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire) play, it's usually going to be pretty good.

The stage is set for a fine production, too. Tennessee Williams' script is the usual quality: Williams knack for fine language and dramatic situations makes his work eloquent examples of humanity's best and worst impulses. Williams' characters are deliciously ambiguous and true, from the charming drifter who refuses to be tied down by any one woman, to the women who want to, but can't (due to circumstances) tie him down.

Furthermore, Arena Stage's Artistic Director Molly Smith is helming the show, and she knows how to keep a play running right, whether by the timely pacing or by getting quality emoting out of the more than solid cast (though consistent accents would also be nice). Smith should be given extra props for the atmosphere that prevails throughout Orpheus Descending: an air of sustained desperation and impending, irreversible tragedy is hard to maintain.

Smith has a capable cast helping though. Arena Stage veteran Matt Bogart (Camelot) knows how to "burn any two-footed woman down," as his lead character Val Xavier (the aforementioned mysterious stranger/drifter) boasts
early on. Bogart's blustering, handsome Val does seem like the type who would blow into town and seduce just about everything with XX chromosomes, even unintentionally. Fortunately, Bogart has a very strong counter-point in handler Vinton's Lady Torrance, who offers him a job and a place to stay. Yet the fact that she still has a dying husband might pose a bit of a problem for the two, romantically speaking. Torrance is steadfast and a great presence, and she utters the hardest lines with the utmost respectable determination. "‘Lady, Lady,' [he called]. How could I answer with two tongues in my mouth?" she asks an ex-boyfriend in one brutal reminiscence.

By this point, you realize the show should be coming together really well, right? And it does, to a degree. Everything about Orpheus Descending is done well, but there's no real spark: Williams has written better scripts and Arena Stage has pulled off more shocking and tragic conclusions (in Yellowman earlier this year, for instance). Smith's staging is very credible, but nothing really excites the audience. Any seduction yarn should have a slow burn, sure, but a more intense one, at least.

The technical work is similarly good, but not really outstanding. Bill C. Ray's Set Design is the Torrances' simple store, and it evokes the small-town vibe beautifully, if doing nothing more (which it doesn't). Michael Gilliam's Lighting Design is suitably versatile, giving the expected dark and stormy weather a cozily familiar texture. Eric Shim's Sound Design and Jack Cannon's original music and lyrics are also noteworthy, making Val not just any handsome stranger who obviously plays guitar, but one with some passionate and intelligent singing to do.

Being not fantastic isn't that big a knock on Orpheus Descending, when you consider the compliment that pays to Arena Stage's other work. Really, that just means you should keep your eyes open for next season. Anyway, when Albee, Wilson and O'Neill are playing back to back to back, you know that's a good sign.

Orpheus Descending is playing in the Kreeger at href=http://www.arena-stage.com/orpheus-descending.shtml>Arena Stage through June 27. Tickets cost between $40 and $59 but people ages 5 through
25 can buy a limited number of $10 tickets until 5:25 p.m. the day of the performance.

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