Ana Gasteyer in Passion. Playwright: Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine . At: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand. Phone: 312-595-5600; $54-$70. Runs through: Nov. 11
As Sweetest Day looms, the air grows cloying with hearts and flowers and butterflies, with syrupy sentiment and Cupid-cute clichés. But there will never be a mass-marketed holiday dedicated to the kind of love Passion delves. In Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's harsh, dissonant tale, falling in love is like falling into death. Love is not pastel pink; it is slash-your-wrists-open red, voracious and merciless, annihilating caution, reason and shame. In Passion, love is obsession: permanent as death, pure as breath, implacable as stone.
Directed by Gary Griffin, Passion's brutal heart beats true. This is a love story and a story of insatiable mania, a fever dream of devouring fury. And it's treacherous in the telling; manhandle Passion even a little and you've got Fatal Attraction in period costume. But Griffin has a gift for illuminating sorrow without pathos, and with Passion, he takes the dark, lustrous core of the human heart and makes an inferno of it. Passion is a brief, indelible interlude, and—thanks to Rob Berman's exquisite musical direction—a production of auditory incandescence.
Opening with a searingly sensual tableau that celebrates carnality in all its fleshly wonder, Passion starts as a conventional love story. Handsome young soldier Giorgio ( Adam Brazier ) and his rapturously gorgeous lover, Clara ( Kathy Voytko ) , are truly, deeply, madly in love. In the lush, melting notes of the song Happiness, they revel in each other's arms. But Giorgio is sent off to serve in a remote outpost—a stark, colorless place where the only diversion is banal gossip over flavorless meals. The contrast between the sublimely decadent flourish of the opening-scene boudoir and the dour military grimness that follows couldn't be greater. ( Paul Miller's evocative, invaluable lighting and Paul Tazewell's detailed costumes heighten the contrasting moods and overall intensity of Passion from start to finish. )
There is one woman amid the soldiers of Giorgio's new home, Fosca ( Ana Gasteyer ) , the cousin of the regiment's captain, and she is as painfully plain, thin, desperate and sickly as Clara is lavishly beautiful, ebullient and bursting with life. Giorgio lends Fosca books, and she falls—plummets—in love. The rest is a dizzying, draining whirl of love, lust, rage and despair.
Gasteyer is mesmerizing as a woman whose emotions are unmitigated by the sort of everyday sanity that keeps people from slaughtering each other in the streets. Voytko is simply radiant, her shimmering, soprano coloring her every scene with emotional riches. Brazier doesn't have the depth of his leading ladies—his voice is sublime but when he's not singing, his presence is callow. And yet between the three lovers of Passion, we glimpse all of the primal emotions that ever were, and all that ever will be.