From the beginning of Stephen Sondheim's tragic musical romance Passion, we realize there's something screwy about the notion of "love" promoted in this kinky tale. It's a sort of Fatal Attraction meets Beauty and the Beast--but without the tidy ending of either of those popular works. Throughout the disappointing first act, it's tough to work up much sympathy for the "Beast"--in this case, a sickly lady named Fosca. But swallow the premise, and the play eventually manages to touch a delicate sentiment or two. Like the tragic hero of Phantom of the Opera, Sondheim's Beast may die, but not without first winning some affection from the viewer.
It takes a fine-tuned production to pull off all this melodrama, and the Trouble Clef Players' efforts are imaginative and lively, if at times a bit clunky. The chief reasons for the show's success are Paul Page's sensitive, smart performance as the hero, Giorgio, and Loraine O'Donnell-Gray's bitter, grasping Fosca. These two make a maniacal kind of sense by the last scene--they're opposites who instead of attracting, fold in on each other.
The story takes place in 1863 and concerns a young Italian army captain whose career takes him away from Milan and his paramour, Clara (Nikki McCurry), a married woman with a small child. At the distant military outpost, Giorgio's new colonel has a cousin in dire need of friendship: Madame Fosca, earlier dumped by a rogue husband who used up her dowry before moving on.
Fosca was never strong, and her melancholy has rendered her downright frail--she is dying by inches from the moment we meet her. But Giorgio's solicitous kindness toward her stirs up a long-buried hope of happiness. Self-pitying and as mean as a snake, she coils her emotions around this courteous gentleman. The fact that he loves another doesn't stop her; she even seems to take pleasure in belittling his relationship with Clara.
And Fosca's sneering attitude toward Giorgio's affair almost seems justified when we realize that he has exaggerated the depth of that dalliance. He protests all the way through the first act that his and Clara's was a love for the ages, but he's obviously laboring under a delusion. As Clara's refusal to run away with him makes clear, it was a sordid little affair, nothing more.
Fosca's smothering attentions eventually begin to drag poor Giorgio into a quarrel with his colonel. But then he and Clara break up, and Giorgio begins to see Fosca in a new light. This is where Sondheim's plot becomes hard to swallow. It's as though we're supposed to believe that a female stalker might somehow become attractive to her victim if only she is persistent enough. Giorgio may be a long way from home, but this woman is a fruitcake, for heaven's sake.
Still, if you can manage to dismiss the dubious premise of the first act, there's something quite lovely about the second. Giorgio's love seems to transform Fosca from a selfish shrew into a tender-hearted, kindly lass, and the last few scenes have a kind of operatic soulfulness. The violence of the emotions and the resolution of the plot through a character's death is, well, very nineteenth-century Italian opera.
O'Donnell-Gray, who doubles as the show's set designer, has created a wonderfully eerie set--very murky and oddly formal, suggestive at once of a medieval castle and the hellish mental states of the characters. Brian E. du Fresne's musical accompaniment on the piano is lavish and sophisticated. Director Donald Berlin is meticulous--he has soldiers march out to the beat of a military drum to change the set. And best of all, he keeps his cast moving purposefully through its paces.
Sondheim's music is often repetitious and dissonant, but it has its moments. Particularly lovely is the composer's score for the last scene--a full-company piece that is both rousing and sweet. The first act hasn't prepared you for these feelings. But all those nasty Fatal Attraction emotions aside, there's a kind of grace that comes from Giorgio's passion and Fosca's transformation.
Passion, through November 16 at the Guild Theater, 4840 Sterling Drive, Boulder, 494-4904.