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Orpheus Descending takes another shot at Boston

`Orpheus descending takes another shot at Boston'

ORPHEUS DESCENDING

Written by Tennessee Williams.

Directed by Melissa Wentworth.

Starring Kate Bennis, Catherine Gibson, Edward R. Sorrell, Lee Higgins, Bambi Sears and Chip Cross.

At the Back Alley Theater.

Nov. 1 to Dec. 8.

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By NIC KELMAN

WHEN THE ORIGINAL VERSION of Orpheus Descending -- called Battle of the Angels -- opened in Boston in 1940 it was far from successful, closing within a week. Thus, the fact that Tennessee Williams' rewritten play opened on the 50th anniversary of its first failure should highlight the bravery and irony of the Back Alley Theater's current production.

The plot of both Battle and Orpheus is, as Williams put it, that of "a wild-spirited boy [who] blows into a quiet southern town and causes about as much fuss as a fox in a chicken coop." The play is one of Williams' most metaphorical and is filled with Greek and Christian allusions. It was largely due to these references that Battle was forced to close in 1940, after protests from Judeo-Christian groups. However, Williams' rewrite was not influenced by these problems except in his new choice of title.

Williams spent 17 years in the reconstruction of Battle of Angels and claimed that in all that time it "never left the workbench." He stated after that time that he was finally saying what he had originally wanted to say in the first version. However, when Orpheus Descending opened in 1957 on Broadway, it once again flopped. Many critics complained that it appeared too much like a parody of a Williams play.

The reasoning behind this line of thought is obvious. The play is very weak for a Williams play and many scenes seem almost self-satirical (the fig tree speech, for example, is ridiculous). Williams later admitted that perhaps he had "exaggerated the reactions." Character relationships often strain to produce the actions involved in perpetuating the plot, often failing to make motivation believable.

Likewise dialogues are frequently all too pregnant with their symbolism. They are far too blatant and childish for what people have come to expect from Williams through exposure to such masterpieces as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie.

However, even though the play still suffers from its usual (and unalterable) faults, the Back Alley Theater's production succeeds for two main reasons. First, even a second-rate Tennessee Williams play is more interesting than most of the other current offerings on Boston stages. Second, the company brought together for this production has managed to carry off this difficult play with remarkable skill.

It is usually possible, given a certain amount of talent, to perform a Williams play and make it a success simply because the material is powerful enough to support itself. In the case of Orpheus, however, this is far from true since the script lacks the usual animation. Here it is up to the company to make or break the play -- this may be why the film version, The Fugitive Kind, succeeded where both stage versions failed -- and, in the case of the Back Alley Theater, they have definitely managed to produce something which is indeed captivating.

The leading ladies, Kate Bennis as Carol Cutrere and Catherine Gibson as Lady, are so intense that they force you to become involved with them and breathe a sigh of relaxation whenever they exit. It is largely due to their performances that the play is so watchable. Jabe Torrence (Edward R. Sorrell) is positively magnetic and Beulah Binnings (Lee Higgins) and Eva Temple (Bambi Sears) also provide interesting watching as supporting characters.

The one flaw in the core cast is Chip Cross as Valentine Xavier, the leading man. While Cross is by no means bad -- in fact, he is quite convincing -- he lacks the intensity of the other actors and this failing is accentuated by the fact that Val Xavier should be nothing but intense. This problem further complicates the frequently unbelievable character interactions since many of the believable ones rely upon the intensity of Val's character to hold them up.

Despite this problem, the play is still extremely captivating. The direction is excellent, and the action moves very smoothly, never allowing you to relax when the main characters are on stage. Furthermore, the pace is so fast that it is only in retrospect that you have time to recognize that the characters often act without motivation. In fact, the pace is the play's saving grace and causes you to grab hold and not let go. It also creates a sense of emotional draining at the climax of events.

Orpheus Descending is definitely worth seeing. If you are a fan of Tennessee Williams, Back Alley's production is a fine tribute to the play, of which he was most fond; and if you are not a fan, it still makes for an intense, emotionally torturous, and thought-provoking night out.