In the Moment: ‘Passion’ at Signature Theatre

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Leaving Stephen Sondheim’s Passion, directed by Matthew Gardiner, I found one word to describe my reaction:

Believable. Yes, believable.

This Signature Theatre production of Passion took me inside its characters in ways previous productions had not. It was a production with honesty and openness and a kind of burning fever to it, rather than mad outbursts of orgasms of love-making. Gardiner fashioned his Passion as one in which the three main characters present unhinged love outside of the bedroom; love as an unstable kinetic condition.

I came to see the three main characters created by composer Stephen Sondheim and book writer James Lapine as stalking one other–each trying to gain the dominant position in their own very different ways.

There is Fosca, portrayed ferociously by Natascia Diaz. The character of Fosca is a woman with growing, obsessive feelings for a young military officer named Giorgio (played by Claybourne Elder). Giorgio is a man who transforms from a seemingly shallow pretty boy, though brave in battle, into something much deeper. A man with a soul and a heart larger than the appendage between his legs. And then there is Clara (Steffanie Leigh), married with a child, and Giorgio’s beautiful, at first ascendant, lover.

Claybourne Elder (Giorgio) and Natascia Diaz (Fosca) in Passion at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.
Claybourne Elder (Giorgio) and Natascia Diaz (Fosca) in Passion at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Gardiner’s approach to Passion struck me as a risk that paid off. After the first few minutes, it became not just another beautiful theatrical love story about doomed love, nor one of those coolly cynical pieces dripping with wordplay. Accomplished without the orgasmic cries others might include, Gardiner’s Passion is intoxicating; full of the honest volatility that love can provoke when it strikes deep. Or when someone finally wakes up to understand that unavailability and long-term uncertainty (even with a beautiful love object) is not much of a life. Certainly not a genuine 24/7 love between equals.

What I took away from this Passion was a sense that for some it just takes time to wake up to the notion that beautiful eye candy doesn’t do much for one’s own inner worth and self-esteem. I mean, who among us has not at first been attracted to surface-level beauty or handsomeness?

Over the course of the Gardiner production, I became mesmerized by the predicaments of the three main characters–the scopophilia of one relationship, the deeper turmoil of another. Which would win out was known, of course. But I was sitting forward in my seat to see how Gardiner and his cast would keep my interest beyond the sheer beauty of Sondheim’s lush music.

Well, they succeeded by building depth into a quietly operatic tale about the opening of hearts. By showing that love will lead characters (and real-life people) to do unexpected things. By building tension that shows where love was once uncertain, it now sees beyond surface beauty. Then and only then did love became fierce and enveloping and longed for in its own way–and worthy of risk, no matter what others might say.

Some quick notes:

-How dominant the alluring Clara was at the beginning, using her beauty and infrequent sex as a weapon. But, beyond the beauty and decent sex, what had she to talk about beyond the superficial to keep Giorgio interested? Can’t imagine Giorgio would be interested in her parenting skills.

Claybourne Elder (Giorgio) and Steffanie Leigh (Clara) in Passion at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.
Claybourne Elder (Giorgio) and Steffanie Leigh (Clara) in Passion at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

-Might Fosca’s cries from her unseen bedroom be those of a woman finding pleasure by herself alone in her bed, rather than of some mental state the men in her life could not understand?

– Were some of Fosca’s illnesses planned and purposeful so as to gauge the reactions of men to see if they were worthy of her? Or was she “truly” ill? (This was a grand discussion my wife Willa and I had as we drove home from Signature).

-One final note. With so much to visually take in, what drew me the most was Natascia Diaz’s right hand as she sang several songs. Her fingers emphasized words or syllables. Her right hand became like a fine music director, laying out rhythms and points to pay attention to. If I was so taken, how must the character Giorgio feel seeing that –hypnotized?

So, yes, I did buy that with Gardiner’s direction Passion is not far-fetched at all with its characters’ shifting emotions and attachments. Diaz’s Fosca was incredibly exposed even without showing outward skin. Leigh’s Clara was opaque even in her sheer lingerie. And Elder’s Giorgio, well he had the longest, most complex journey of all. He had to grow up in public in about two hours. He had to make choices. He had to turn away easy beauty and furtive sex. Giorgio might have risked his life in a military battle or later a duel, but that was nothing to the cojones he needed to fall in love with a woman his equal whom other men could not see.

What a thrill to take in a production of Passion which depicts the unexpected awakening of love beyond surface beauty–a love that became a ferocious shared obsession.

Running Time: Two hours and 5 minutes, with no intermission.

Passion plays through September 23, 2018, at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington VA (in the Shirlington complex). For tickets, call 703-820-9771 or go online.