“I’ll probably be here for at least thee more hours,” Elizabeth Bacon ’03, the scenic designer of Tennessee Williams’ “Orpheus Descending,” whispered into my ear at around 12:30 Thursday night. Though long hours of rehearsal and work behind-the-scenes are typically characteristic of most Yale theater productions, the cast and crew of this year’s Yale Dramatic Association Spring Experimental production has obviously reaped the benefits of their intense endeavors. Sitting in the audience, among numerous cast and crew for their final dress rehearsal before opening night, one gets the sense that a lot of effort had been put into this production from all aspects — not the least of which is technical directing and lighting design — and it shows. From a technical standpoint, everything about this production provides for a purely professional theater-going experience.
Williams’ 1957 tragedy, set in a small Southern town, is not an easy piece to direct. However, director Rachel Watson ’03 manages to instill almost all of her actors with what seems to be Williams’ original vision for the play, which he stated in 1957, “So much for the past and present. The future is called ‘perhaps,’ which is the only possible thing to call the future. And the important thing is not to allow that to scare you.”
Watson seems to have a keen ability to clearly delineate which characters realize this vision, and which do not. The outcome is very effective indeed. Pick up to cues are fast when they need to be, and slow when the actors can use the dead time to their dramatic advantage. It is a bold move for any director to allow her audience to watch a single character completely change clothes on stage (no, there’s no nudity) in total silence. Watson, however, in taking the chance, uses her directing talent to highlight the actors’ talents in what is a cooperative triumph for any production.
Directing can only go so far, however, and while most of the actors successfully convey an accurate representation of the inner-motives which drive their characters forward, the brilliantly caste hero and heroine of the play reach a level of truth in their portrayals, which is unparalleled anywhere else in the cast (with the exception, perhaps, of Vira Slywotzki ’04 who seems to understand the complexity, both realized and unrealized, within her character, Vee Talbot, quite well). The only drawback of such superior portrayals, is of course, a greater emphasis on any lack — however small it may be — in the rest of the cast.
Valentine Xavier, played by Nick Tucci ’04, and Lady Torrence, played by Emily Gevalt ’04, not only convey a kind of familiarity with their characters — the kind of familiarity, which transcends familiarity all-together, by simply co-existing with the character — that is at times, mesmerizing, but moreover, their chemistry is so real, so raw, that one cannot help but begin to forget that one is watching actors. The experience of loosing oneself entirely in the story of two people is the desired, though rarely achieved, intent any actor and director has for his or her audience. This transcendence is undoubtedly achieved between Tucci and Gevalt many times throughout the play, the most dramatic of which occurring in a culminating love scene between the two.
Tucci totally embodies his character at all times, from his cocky swagger, to the intense drags he takes on his cigarettes. Likewise, Gevalt brings a sincerity to her character which manifests itself through the tone of her voice — a tone which makes the listener want her to keep talking.
The only reservation that could be found with the production is the costume decisions. There is a stark contrast between Julie Whitesell’s ’05, costume, who plays the eccentric Carol Cutrere, and the rest of the cast. Though Williams does describe Carol’ s character as having “a fugitive beauty, which is stressed, almost to the point of fantasy, by a style of makeup with which a dancer named Valli has lately made such an impression–” one gets the feeling that two different worlds are meeting on stage. Whitesell’s opening costume is a bizarre combination of retro-print stockings with leg-warmers, a short jean skirt, and a red tank top. Her crimped hair makes it difficult to credibly see her in the mid-nineteenth century South, rather than in the early-eighties. Also, one of the main themes of the play revolves around a snakeskin jacket, which is obviously not snakeskin.
The costuming discrepancies are of little distraction, however. “Orpheus Descending” is a triumph for all those who had any part in making it happen, and will prove to be a highly thought-provoking, and entertaining night for all who watch.