As I said in my last column, it's been an incredibly busy week in Orlando culture. In the past few days, I saw the national tour of Disney's Newsies (read my less-than-glowing review on our blog), attended the opening night of Cabaret at the Abbey (you can also find that more positive review online) and got some face time with the surprisingly unguarded Michael "Dumbledore" Gambon at Universal Orlando's Celebration of Harry Potter convention (more on that in next week's issue). And all the while, I was putting the finishing touches on the new book I've been writing for the past six months (preorder on Amazon now!). So it was actually a relief to spend Saturday evening at Orlando Shakes watching Dark Side of Saturn's production of Tennessee Williams' Orpheus Descending, the slow-motion tragedy of someone with even more on his plate than I.
Val Xavier (Andy Matchett) is a handsome loner, drifting through the Jim Crow-era Deep South with little but his signature snakeskin jacket and an acoustic guitar covered with the autographs of blues legends. Eager to quit the "corrupted" life he's been leading, Val lands a clerking job in a general store and quickly finds himself torn between two opposing female forces. Carol Cutrere (Vera Varlamov), the juking 'n' boozing black sheep of a powerful local family who's been banned from the county, believes in "clutch[ing] whatever comes near you with both hands until your fingers break," and Val is conveniently close. The store's prosperous proprietress, Lady Torrance (Leesa Castaneda), seems much more stable; she's trapped in a loveless marriage with a dying bigot (Brett P. Carson) and longs to revive her immigrant father's lost vineyard. Like the titular hero of the Greek myth, Val tries to rescue his lover from this all-American Hades, but the town's gossiping busybodies (Jenny Ornstein, Carol Jacqueline Palumbo) and racist sheriff (Jay Glass) conspire with cruel fate to constrain them.
I thought I was fairly familiar with Tennessee Williams' plays, having seen more than a few from both the audience and backstage and having attended the annual literary festival in his honor in New Orleans. But I went into Orpheus Descending completely blind, never having read it (or seen the film version) before Dark Side of Saturn announced their production. It turns out I'm not the only one, as director Tara Rewis told me that she too was unfamiliar with the 1957 play (last revived on Broadway in 1989 with Vanessa Redgrave) until producer Nick Baniewich brought her the script. "I read the first scene, and [it's] all exposition, and just reading it was terrible," Rewis said. "Once I started to imagine the characters doing it, it was OK. And once you get past that first scene, the story between Lady and Val is just so entrancing. You want to fight for them, but it's Tennessee Williams, so you know it's going to end horribly."
Rewis does a good job filling that slow first act with character detail, thanks to her excellent leads and solid supporting cast. Matchett seems made to play Val, exuding boyish cocksurety with a soulful sadness beneath the surface; he even gets to strum and sing a little. Varlamov's Carol is like Blanche Dubois turned Thelma and Louise, obviously unbalanced (with that Southern Gothic insanity Williams always seems to make his women suffer), but irresistibly attractive in her self-immolation. But it's Castaneda who best embodies the balance between hysterical melodrama and human drama that Williams teeters along; she squeezes her character's third-act revelations for every tear they're worth and then some.
Among the long list of supporting players, Karen Edwards-Hill stands out as Vee Talbot, a visionary painter blinded by Christ; William Eads-Brown also makes an impression as Uncle Pleasant, a creepy Choctaw conjurer who gets the show's last laugh. And Casey Blanton's textured set, decked out with dime-store detritus, also plays an essential role, while lighting designer Scott Bruce makes full use of the Mandell Theater's color-changing cyclorama (sometimes to distracting effect).
This is far from Williams' finest work, but after a sluggish start, Orpheus Descending finally builds up a big head of steam as it barrels towards its inevitable ending; perhaps a bit too big, as the denouement felt cartoonishly fast, blunting the impact of the climactic violence. Even so, it's refreshing to see a show that hasn't been done to death already in this town, which Rewis tells me is one of Dark Side of Saturn's primary goals. Next, they'll present Murray Schisgal's Luv – another show at Shakes I know squat about, this one a comedy directed by Justin Regula, starring Michael Knight, Lauren Ashleigh Morrison and Corey Volence. With only four productions under their belt, Dark Side of Saturn is shaping up as a company to watch for out-of-the-ordinary Orlando theater.