Seattle-born director's play takes Tennessee Williams play to new level

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(L to R) Richard Prioleau, Rebecca Gibel, Tiffany Nichole Greene, and Grant Chapman in Intiman Theatre’s Orpheus Descending.

I’ve been to lots of productions in Seattle that got what felt to me like an obligatory standing ovation, bravos for whatever cause a show seemed to trumpet. The other evening I went to Orpheus Descending, done by the Intiman at 12th Avenue Arts. It did not get a standing ovation.

Why no S.O.? Because it was so powerful we could hardly move.

Directed by Seattle local and public school product Ryan Purcell, Orpheus Descending is part of Intiman’s “The Williams Project,” devoted to producing the works of the great American playwright, Tennessee Williams. A Mississippi native, Williams wrote Orpheus in 1957, during the most productive stretch of his creative life. Still, it is not produced nearly as often as other of his more famous plays like A Streetcar Named Desire.

Set in the American South, Orpheus Descending draws on the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus, the singer of the music of the gods. In the classic story of Orpheus and Eurydice, Orpheus descends into the underworld to retrieve his lost wife, Eurydice. There he is killed by those who could not, or would not, hear his divine music. To say more would give too much away.

In Williams’ play, the Orpheus figure is a young man and musician, Val Xavier, played by Charlie Thurston. He wanders into town wearing a snakeskin jacket and carrying a case with an accordion inside. Oddly, the accordion is referred to throughout as a “guitar.” This touch, which wasn’t part of the original 1957 version, seemed to go with one leitmotif of Purcell’s production: Nothing is quite what it seems to be.

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Charlie Thurston (Val Xavier) and Kemiyondo Coutinho (Lady Torrance) in Intiman Theatre’s Orpheus Descending, where an accordion is substituted for a guitar. Credit: Jeff Carpenter

This is aided by the fact that the 19-person cast is played by eight actors. Four of the eight play one part. Which means that the others cover a host of roles. The effect of this is to keep you guessing, guessing and thinking. For example, Grant Chapman opens the play as Dolly Hamma, a gossipy woman sitting around the store run by Lady Torrance.

By Act II Chapman, who has been convincing as Dolly (even with a full beard), appears as Sheriff Talbott, a nasty redneck with a gun. Another actor who transforms from role to role, and from male to female before you eyes, is Richard Prioleau. He opens as David Cutrere, once the lover of Lady Torrance. But before long he is Nurse Porter, who takes care of a dying Jabe Torrance, Lady’s mean-spirited and racist husband.

Instead of making any real effort to conceal these changes of character, the transformations are rapid and obvious, which doesn’t mean they are any less effective. To the contrary, the effectiveness of the actors in assuming such radically different roles and personas leaves you wondering: How much we are all inhabiting personas that have become fixed, but perhaps are not nearly so set as we imagine?

Whether this explains the accordion qua guitar thing or not, I don’t know. But having the cast continually refer to what you can plainly see to be an accordion as a guitar seemed to reinforce the theme of how reality and identity are often socially constructed, and how we conspire to build the boxes which so often become our cells.

As the show began, the director and actors, all milling about the open stage area, with seating on three sides, told us that there would be two intermissions and that we had a role to play during those breaks.

At the first, we could mark the seat we had if we liked it, or we could get up and claim another. The second intermission would feature something a little more challenging, instructions to follow. Director Purcell explained that the idea was to change our point of view, our perspective, and see how things looked from another angle.

On hearing this plan, I thought it sounded like a gimmick. But the invitation was so playful and sincere that most (maybe all) of us in the audience gave it a try. And, yes, it made us part of at least one of the production’s themes: Reality is uncertain, shifting -- pay attention. The second intermission resulted in a reconfiguring of the seating and the addition of seats for audience members amid the actors and performance.

But that wasn’t the only theme. Another relied more on the ancient myth itself. There is a dimension, something transcendent embodied here in song, that enters our bruised and broken reality. It beckons to us with hope, hope and life. It challenges the ways we have settled for more constricted and harsh versions of reality and of ourselves.

Lady Torrance, the Eurydice figure, here emerges as the person who, despite profound suffering and disappointment during her life, hears the call. Played wonderfully by the Ugandan actress Kemiyondo Coutinho, Lady is a powerful and complex character. Lady reaches beyond the violence, racism and despair of her setting for “the true love that will find you in the end,” as Val sings hauntingly.

We missed the fact that this particular Intiman production is at 12th Avenue Arts on Capitol Hill. We went to the Seattle Center location where the performances always used to be (and sometimes are still). That was odd. There was no one there but the homeless. Homeless people lounged about the courtyard of what is now called the "Cornish Playhouse.” One group played cards, while others drank in corners. It was somewhat Cormac McCarthyesque, but a strangely fitting warm-up for the S.O.-worthy play to follow.

“Orpheus Descending” runs through August 2.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.