by Ann Greer
“Passion” director Matthew Gardiner wants to make something clear – in neither the 1994 Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical nor the 1869 novel it was based on is the character Fosca described as being ugly, even witch-like, as the role is sometimes portrayed. She is very sick, and that may make her less than desirable. Sadly, it’s not surprising that a woman with strong views and actions morphs in some minds from one attribute to the other.
“People feel the need to be spoon-fed tropes. In the love story trope, women don’t behave like Fosca. She expresses herself in ways that other women don’t; why can’t we see the qualities that make her extraordinary?” Gardiner asks.
“Passion” tells the story of an unusual love triangle. It takes place in 1800s Italy, and as the musical begins, dashing soldier Georgio (Claybourne Elder) is having a consuming affair with married Clara (Steffanie Leigh). When he is assigned to a backwater post, he encounters ill and weepy Fosca (Natascia Diaz). Fosca falls for Georgio, and proceeds to make her feelings clear, importuning, stalking, and annoying him. Georgio remains the gentlemanly soldier, and after much protest, he accepts and responds to what Fosca offers him, love without boundaries.
This brief synopsis fails to convey all that happens between the three characters, aided by the lush and emotionally rich music. Gardiner says the casting is crucial for these roles, adding that they are three of the most complicated written for musical theater.
“All three lead roles are very difficult; they are complex and multilayered. Part of the brilliance is that Sondheim and Lapine leave some things ambiguous. The actors have to dig deep, both into what’s on the page and what is not. I tried to make sure that the balance among the three is correct. Sometimes in productions, Georgio gets lost, but the story is about a man who is close to cracking, and Fosca causes him to crack. Sondheim says, ‘the force of somebody’s feelings for you can crack you open’,” Gardiner says.
If his Signature Theatre production of “Passion” brings another dimension to the love story, that’s fine with Gardiner.
“So many people want to define and put a pretty ribbon around a story, to say that a way of loving is good or bad. Love is one of the most powerful forces in the world – that’s the point,” he says.
“Passion” is now playing at Signature Theatre through September 23, 2018. Tickets: SigTheatre.org or 703-820-9771.
(1) Natascia Diaz (Fosca), Claybourne Elder (Giorgio), Photo by Margot Schulman
(2) Steffanie Leigh (Clara), Claybourne Elder (Giorgio), Photo by Christopher Mueller
(3) Claybourne Elder (Giorgio), Natascia Diaz (Fosca), Photo by Margot Schulman
Ann Greer has covered culture in the DC region for The Washington Post, Capitol File magazine, and WAMU-FM, among others. She was the first online theater critic in the DC region, for AOL Digital City Washington.