Theater Review: PASSION (Custom Made Theatre Company in San Francisco)

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by Harvey Perr on July 13, 2019

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


Stephen Sondheim’s Passion is less a work of art than it is an art piece and the Custom Made Theatre Co., in its lovely and elegant chamber version, treats it as such. It is the jewel in the Sondheim canon, exquisite to some, an oddity to others, and it contains some of Sondheim’s most soaring music.

Based on a haunting Italian film Passione d’amore, James Lapine’s book takes us to an Italian military outpost in 1853, and looks at love, not as something romantic but as something both punishing and revelatory, as two women teach a handsome young army captain a fascinating lesson in what is at the heart of true love. Giorgio loves the beautiful Clara, and their happiness would reach a kind of perfection if she wasn’t married; he is sent from Milan to a remote outpost, where he meets the lonely and homely Fosca, who foists her love upon him in a relentlessly obsessive and nearly hysterical manner which ultimately leaves the captain to understand the true nature of love even as all three participants in this unholy triangle are destroyed.

Not only are the voices of John Melis as Giorgio, Juliana Lustenader as Clara, and the extraordinary Heather Orth quite beautiful but their acting is equally finely calibrated and they capture precisely the tonal lyricism of Sondheim’s score, as well as the twisted interior lives of their characters.

The production is simple and pure; it is as if we have entered a faded atelier of another century where a concert is about to take place and, indeed, there is a piano and a place for a cellist and a clarinetist — a muted setting for the drama that is about to take place. The chorus has been chosen more for their voices than for their acting skills, but in Kathleen Qui’s evocative costumes, they add more than color, and they do perform extra duty as stage hands, the men swift and efficient, the women pert and charming. And the entire piece is directed by Stuart Bousel with a stillness that belies the increasingly tempestuous undercurrent of the drama.

Finally, the major reason to see this production is Ms. Orth. Her Fosca is, quite simply, sublime. One cannot easily forget the devastating effect of both her gorgeous singing and the clear and direct way she projects the madness that clings to her impossible and ferocious love.

photos by Jay Yamada

Custom Made Theatre Company
533 Sutter in San Francisco
ends on July 20, 2019
for tickets, visit Custom Made

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