Orpheus Descending, presented by Frantic Redhead Productions, opens Jan. 15; plays Thurs.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 2 pm; through Feb. 21. Tickets: $25. Theatre/Theater, 5041 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles; 800.838.3006 or brownpapertickets.com/event/92508.
“Oh, you weak, beautiful people who give up with such grace. What you need is someone to take hold of you – gently, with love, and hand your life back to you.”
Who can forget the admonition to dear Hansel & Gretel to “Not look back!” as they fled from danger to a safer place?Â The same again with Lot and his wife in the Bible.Â And, so too, with Orpheus who descended into Hades to charm the gods with his sad songs so he could save his lady Eurydice and ascend back to life.
Poor Orpheus did look back, with resulting consequences for him and his lady.Â Even the great mythmakers couldn’t agree if he was a hero (Virgil) or a coward (Plato). Getting him right has always been a complex journey.Â Perfect pickins’ for our own Tennessee Williams who set this legend of repressed desires in the American South.
For Williams, his recounting of the myth centered on the power of passion, art and imagination to redeem life and return it to vitality. In 1940, Williams’ version became his first Broadway-bound play, aptly titled Battle of Angels. The critics, like so many infernal gods, sent him straight to Hades.
“I have always been pushed by the negative. The apparent failure of a play sends me back to my typewriter that very night.”Â –TW
For 17 years and through five major rewrites, Williams finally got his play a better ascension on Broadway in 1957 under the present title Orpheus Descending. Two years later, he turned it into the film The Fugitive Kind starring Marlon Brando as Valentine ‘Snakeskin’ Xavier, Anna Magnani as Lady Torrance and Joanne Woodward as Carol Cutrere.
According to Williams, the play was the “emotional bridge between my early years and my present state of existence as a playwright.”Â First loves are hard to forget, their songs and images play on in our heads.
So that we don’t forget…Denise Crosby, Gale Harold and Claudia Mason, under the direction of filmmaker Lou Pepe, are firing up a six-week run of Orpheus Descending for Los Angeles audiences, opening this Friday, January 15 at Theatre/Theater.
Who are these intrepid actors, where did they come from and why did they choose to ride Williams’ Southern Gothic roller coaster of a melodrama?Â Let’s see…
“Some mystery should be left in the revelation of character in a play just as a great deal of mystery is always left in the revelation of character in life.”Â –TW
We start with Gale Harold as Valentine “Snakeskin” Xavier. It would be more polite or conventional to start with one of the ladies, but Snakeskin and perhaps Harold himself are anything but conventional. Williams describes this Orpheus as “having a wild beauty about him,” a drifter who “can burn a woman down.” Wow!
As you know Harold from his television and film work, he certainly has the wild beauty and burn ’em down business pretty well handled. Among his many roles, he’s been the lead Brian Kinney on Showtime’s hit series Queer as Folk, Susan Meyers’ lover on Desperate Housewives and Wyatt Earp on HBO’s Deadwood.Â But, did you know he began as an intern at A Noise Within?
Onto Denise Crosby as his Eurydice, Lady Torrance. You probably know she’s a part of the Bing Crosby family dynasty. She created the starring role of Lt. Tasha Yar in Star Trek, the Next Generation. But, did you know she was nominated for a Best Actress Ovation Award for her performance as Lil in Last Summer at Bluefish Cove which opened at Theatre Geo in 1994?
And, this Claudia Mason, playing the lonely and vulnerable exhibitionist Carol Cutrere. You may know her as one of the world’s top models and in the biz since she was discovered at age 13. She was also a Woody Allen favorite in the film Celebrity. But did you know she has her roots in off-Broadway theatre and is the daughter of Clifford Mason, playwright, novelist and critic for the New York Times?
“In memory, everything seems to happen to music.”Â –TW
For these actors, there certainly has been a sweet soundtrack to their lives…especially in their memories of theatre and what keeps them attracted to working on the LA boards.
Crosby remembers the “most profound event that shifted everything was Tamara. We thought it would last three months and it lasted for years.” (Note: Tamara became Los Angeles’ longest running play.) “I started as understudies for Tamara and the Ballerina.Â They generally didn’t take the understudy up into the main role because the understudy was too valuable, covering several roles.
“But, for me, it was the opposite of All About Eve. Our lead, Margot Bionne, knew she was leaving and purposely missed the night the producers were in the audience. ‘That way they can see you can do it,’ she said. She was right and I ran with it for months and months. So many industry people would come. It was then I got my audition for Star Trek.”
Mason calls herself the “classic Manhattan mix-black father, white mother.” She enjoyed her New York theatre days especially her success as the lead in the off-Broadway production of Boxing Day Parade. But, she’s happily settled in Los Angeles for five years now and was named Outstanding Female Actor in a Lead Role by Reviewplays.com for her work in the world premiere of Two Ships Passing at the Pan Andreas Theatre.
“You can be young without money but you can’t be old without it.”Â –TW
Harold’s memories may be even more recognizable to theatre actors. “We were doing Cymbeline at LATC, he recounts, “and I was getting to that stage in my career where I was thinking New York or Chicago. I wasn’t a good auditioner in LA. I hadn’t mastered the Shurtleff style. But, my manager wanted me to audition for Queer as Folk. It was presented more like a movie for cable so I went to read.
“I didn’t care anymore. I didn’t care how I looked. I had $5 to my name and ran out of gas on the way to the audition. I had to hunt around in my car to find enough change to get there.
“I had seen the original British version of the show and I knew how an American would play the role-unapologetically OUT, take it or leave it. So I opened up my guns and let them blaze.Â When I was done, I let them know ‘if you want me back, I can’t read Monday…I have to strike Cymbeline.'”
Enthusiasm is the most important thing in life.Â –TW
Why choose Orpheus Descending to perform?
Harold is big on his coach Kim Gillingham. “I am fascinated,” he says, “by how she guided me to make choices amidst all the chaos and to find the feelings that allow me to hold onto those choices. At the end of last year, I called and asked her if she knew of something more rigorous that I could work on every day. She called back and recommended this play. Val. It was a very terrifying thought, and exciting.
“First and foremost, there are the words. He built this man’s way of speaking-‘a peculiar talker.’ I’m from Atlanta and spent my formative years in Florida, Georgia and Alabama.Â There’s French, Spanish, Italian and black culture. It’s phraseology.
“It’s like a symphonic arrangement and, when we’re all talking to each other, the strings play together on stage. They talk to each other with echoes of a mandolin or violin. As our director Lou Pepe says ‘it’s an incantation.'”
For Crosby, “It has to be challenging for me to want to do it. I’ve not done Tennessee Williams, and that is thrilling, a personal favorite. Imagine this Italian, this character who came to rural Mississippi with a mother who was ‘very fair.’
“It will be an eye-opener because people like to make assumptions about Italians, pigeon-hole everyone. Why not make Juliet black and Romeo blue?” And, in this case, Lady Torrance blonde. You go, girl…er, Lady!
Mason “almost had a vision of this staircase even before reading Orpheus Descending. I think Carol Cutrere is the soul of the play. Even when all the cattle are going in one direction, her spirit is not. All artists can relate to that.
“Carol stands for the blacks in the play. She took a stand and went the other way in this repressed racist town. All that, mixed with her sexual liberation. It costs her. But, she keeps running with the call of the wild.
“I think Carol and Blanche in Streetcar are Tennessee’s two greatest women.”
“Most of the confidence which I appear to feel, especially when influenced by noon wine, is only a pretense.”Â –TW
With the excitement mounting for the opening of this production, the great enthusiasm the actors have is also mixed with the challenge of doing justice to Williams.
Crosby finds it a “very demanding emotional piece. He doesn’t write light frothy comedies. The challenge for me is to connect all those emotional through lines to what is the truth of the moment.
“So I had to do a lot of research on the history of the time…looking at photos and listening to a lot of music. Music is important here. Then, I could find what in my life to connect this to. It’s a big three-act play, with dialect. She’s very passionate, very full of life and experiencing a sexual reawakening with this younger man.”
Harold, that “younger man,” says “I have a 1001 fears. We can sit around on a blanket with some wine and grapes and get to them all. But mostly, when there’s such a great playwright, you don’t want to sully his adaptation of a myth that makes rocks cry.
“There’s also the fear of the next trap – don’t play the metaphor. Val is a singer and a hustler…a man on the run, not a man with a lute serenading a nymph. I do perform ‘Heavenly Grass’ though, the most terrifying thing of all.” Terrifying perhaps because Williams wrote it himself. An ethereal ode to his audience.
Like her haunting character, commenting on all the action, Mason muses that “when we’re ignited by something so great, by one of the greatest writers, there’s a whoosh – and, the fear mongers we all have, are there.”
“I have found it easier to identify with the characters who were frightened, who were desperate to reach out to another person. But these seemingly fragile people are the strong people really.”Â –TW
Sounds like a good bet for theatergoers to enjoy these actors in a play about living bravely and honestly in a fallen world. Tennessee Williams began these themes here with his Orpheus and Eurydice and evolved them through the many works of his career.
Here’s hoping your feet take a walk in his heavenly grass.
Article by Geo Hartley
Production photos by Robert E. Beckwith