Review: The strange heat of ‘Passion’

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 From left, Ben Michael, Jennie Eisenhower and Liz Filios in Arden Theatre Company’s production of 'Passion.' (Photo courtesy of Mark Garvin)

From left, Ben Michael, Jennie Eisenhower and Liz Filios in Arden Theatre Company’s production of 'Passion.' (Photo courtesy of Mark Garvin)

Before we get into any details about the Arden’s smashing new production of “Passion,” the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine show that won the best-musical Tony in 1994, I have to make full disclosure: I just can’t take the thing seriously. I don’t believe its plot twists. Too many of them involve decisions people probably wouldn’t make – either today or in 1863, when the show is set in Milan and also on a remote Italian military post.

Folks around me seemed to be taking it all in at face value during the Arden’s opening night Wednesday, but I was laughing. (I had to laugh inside; there are social conventions, even in an audience.) Even so, I was never dismissing the Arden’s handling of “Passion” – it’s carefully subdued and, as a result, fabulously moody, as if co-directors Terrence J. Nolen and Jorge Cousineau stepped back from it constantly to fine-tune the atmosphere. Cousineau’s set of imposing sliding floor-to-ceiling wood panels gives the show a movement like ominous waves whenever the cast rearranges the panels in scene changes, and the sound by Daniel Perelstein, lighting by Thom Weaver and period costumes by Rosemarie E. McKelvey seal the deal.

“Passion” ran eight months on Broadway and has yet to be revived there, but had an Off-Broadway revival recently. In the show, a young military officer named Giorgio (Ben Michael, intense and with riveting eyes that he uses to full advantage) is madly in love with a married woman (Jennie Eisenhower, sweet and infatuated, and giving us a beautifully nuanced portrait of the character). But he’s ordered out of Milan, to serve at an outpost where nothing much seems to happen. The military station is run by a colonel (Ben Dibble), surrounded with people who have become cronies: two lieutenants (Larry Lees and Darren Michael Hengst), a sergeant (Ben Cherry), a major (Michael Philip O’Brien) and a private (John Charles McLaughlin). A duplicitous military doctor (the always estimable Frank X) is also among the pack.

Into the group comes an unsure Giorgio, torn from his love in Milan but true to his military orders. At his first meal with the others, he hears a shivering moan – it’s coming from the colonel’s cousin who lives at the post (Liz Filios, in a remarkably unrelenting portrait of delusion). Her name is Fosca and she has an illness that’s never really described. Whatever it is, the condition has taken her beyond cynicism and straight into fatalism. It’s also made her hungry for something she rejects, even detests — a relationship. Example: She runs into the woods to follow Giorgio, whom she’s been hitting on. Oh, he says, your hand is bloody, and begins to wipe it clean. “Do you want me dead?” she responds.

And this is around the time I part ways with “Passion,” which might well have been titled “Obsession.” You look at Fosca, you say to yourself, whoa, there’s a person with issues! They didn’t have that language in 1863, but they had red flags. Maybe Giorgio was out sick the day they issued them. The guy at one point even writes a warped love letter to Fosca – that she dictates to him. He’s way too smart to succumb to her – or at least his character keeps indicating that he should be. You don’t need to have lived through the Nixon Tapes to know that stuff like this comes back to haunt you.

Not that Giorgio doesn’t know what’s going on, even as he submits to each sting of her hooks. He blasts Fosca about her “endless and insatiable smothering pursuit of me” as he falls for her. My scoffing at the plot makes me wonder whether I look at this show too much from the vantage point of gender politics, and whether I should be. Then again, the entire musical is driven by gender politics, 19th-century style. Whatever it is, I’m not buying.

The Arden, and specifically Nolen, its artistic director, are among the nation’s most notable regional producers and interpreters of Sondheim’s work – and the master of musicals himself will be honored there Monday evening with the stage company’s first master storyteller award. I hope he sticks around to see a performance of “Passion.” For one, he presumably appreciates the plot, and all the lush musical stuff about love. But even more, he’d be hard-pressed to see it done better than this.

_“Passion” runs through June 28 at Arden Theatre Company, on Second Street north of Market Street. 215-922-1122 or www.ardentheatre.org.

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