BWW Reviews: ORPHEUS DESCENDING Seethes With Raw Power, Love and Lust
When you see as many shows as I do as a theater reviewer there are shows that, on the surface, make you concerned as to what you're about to see. Such a show was "Orpheus Descending" developed and performed by the Williams Project at 12th Avenue Arts as part of the Intiman Theatre Festival. I mean we're talking about a 3 hour Tennessee Williams play put on by a brand new to Seattle theatre company. But it's moments like this that make being a theater reviewer worth all the time spent when that trepidation turns into absolute awe-inspired elation at seeing a beautifully simple, well thought out and brilliantly portrayed production such as this that ranks up there with one of the best things I've seen all year.
Williams' play "Orpheus Descending" which is basically a rewrite of his earlier play "Battle of Angels" dips into his favorite subject of love and lust and staying true to both as a young handsome stranger Val (Charlie Thurston) comes into a small southern town. He has nothing to his name but his snakeskin jacket, his guitar and his undeniable animal magnetism which makes him a draw for all the ladies in town and a danger for the men. But Val wants to leave his lascivious past behind him and start fresh here so he manages to get a clerk job at the local store from Lady (Kemiyondo Coutinho), a woman trapped in a loveless marriage to an older man. As the two become closer the attraction between them grows to boiling point but the secrets of their pasts, especially a fatal one involving the death of Lady's father and her now dying husband, threaten to destroy them both.
Beyond the honest and raw brilliance of the actors which leads to much of the success of the piece, director Ryan Purcell has taken the entire town and scaled it down to only eight actors who cross over the lines of gender and ethnic casting norms. Plus the minimalist and intimate set brings the audience right into the action of the piece as if we were a part of the gossiping onlookers in this conservative town making us able to connect with the story and its characters all the more. And the sparse and suggested nature of the set and costumes from designer Ryan Dunn only lends itself to the feeling that you're not watching a play but a bunch of friends telling you a story.
As for the incredible ensemble cast, there is not one weak link, throw away performance or wasted moment in the bunch. Each and every single one of them bring their A game and are a vital part of the whole. Thurston brings in a damaged sweetness to the role making him utterly sympathetic and all the more attractive. And that blends perfectly with the broken nature of Coutinho whose powerful final scene had me in tears. Elise LeBreton as the town black sheep Carol Cutrere manages a tragic confidence mixed with a longing to find her truth which made her impossible to take your eyes off. Max Rosenak turns in a stunning portrayal of one of the smaller roles in the piece as that of Lady's dying husband Jabe as this obviously young and fit actor transforms himself into a bitter and decrepit old man with no makeup and little costume utilizing just his physicality. Starting off the show beautifully Tiffany Nichole Greene and Grant Chapman as two gossiping ladies not only bring in a ton of exposition to the story but also set the perfect tone of the town. And rounding out the ensemble, Rebecca Gibel and Richard Prioleau superbly transform themselves at the drop of a hat (literally) into townsfolk of all genders including a heartbreaking scene from Prioleau as Lady's former lover. And if all that weren't enough, add into the mix some hauntingly gorgeous musical interludes from Thurston and Gibel that made me long for a cast album from this non-musical not only so I could listen to their velvet smooth voices again but also so I could have something permanent to take away from the show with me.
As I said before, this is one of the most surprising and honestly one of the best things I've seen all year and deserves to be experienced by everyone! So I'm sure it's no big surprise that I'm giving it a full throated (if not a little choked up) WOW with my three letter rating system. I cannot emphasize this enough. This is a MUST SEE! And I, for one, cannot wait to see what this new and exciting company brings to Seattle next.
"Orpheus Descending" from the Williams Project performs at 12th Avenue Arts as a part of the Intiman Theatre Festival through August 2nd. For tickets or information contact the box office at 206-315-5835 or visit them online at www.intiman.org.