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Theater review: 'Orpheus Descending' at Theatre/Theater

January 22, 2010 |  4:00 am

The matchless dramatic poetry of Tennessee Williams elevates "Orpheus Descending," which gets its sprawling due at Theatre/Theater. This dark 1957 riff on the Orpheus myth receives a spare, evocative rendition by documentary filmmaker Lou Pepe, his capable company brilliantly spearheaded by Gale Harold and Denise Crosby as the tragic central pair.
Although Harold Clurman's Broadway staging -- revised by Williams from his 1940 "Battle of Angels" -- failed, "Orpheus" is pivotal in the canon. Problematic yet arresting, this saga of a charismatic, guitar-wielding drifter who enters the small-town Hades of an unhappily married, Sicilian-descended storekeeper hovers directly between the playwright's triumphs and misfires.
Debuting stage director Pepe eschews literalism on designer David Mauer's skeletal set. After a masked ritual by Curtis C's Conjure Man sets the archetypal tone, a faux Greek chorus of town gossips (Kelly Ebsary and Sheila Shaw) drolly launches the expository stakes.
In the company of degraded aristocrat Carol Cutrere (the wonderful Claudia Mason), we enter vintage Williams territory, made all the more atmospheric by Brandon Baruch's superb lighting and cast member Robert E. Beckwith's blues-guitar accompaniment.
And when Harold appears as snakeskin-jacketed Val Xavier, followed by Crosby's rigid Lady Torrance, "Orpheus" descends into riveting realms entirely its own. The estimable ensemble, many playing multiple roles, includes ever-reliable Francesca Casale as the sheriff's visionary wife and Geoffrey Wade as Lady's dying, tyrannical husband. Still, all revolves around the Orpheus and Eurydice. Harold, ideally cast, beautifully ignites with Crosby, whose unconventional interpretation is an affecting revelation.
The three-act length may tax modern tastes, although Pepe's pace hardly drags, and the racism and Southern gothic violence remain overt. "We're all sentenced to solitary confinement for life" is Williams' keynote here. It drives this resourceful revival.

-- David C. Nichols
"Orpheus Descending," Theatre/Theater, 5041 W. Pico Blvd., L.A. $25. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Feb. 21. $25. (800) 838-3006 or Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.