The fleshy shuffle of hands stroking drum skins. A curtain at the bottom of a crooked staircase billowing to the beat. Dreams of a man wrapped in flames as people watch. Empty tables surrounded by colorful party favors. A woman's visions of God eventually blinding her. A young musician wandering into town, his only friend a guitar covered with the autographs of jazz and folk legends. A forlorn, middle-aged storekeeper who meets and falls so hard into love it puts her life in jeopardy.
This swirling overload of Southern Gothic means but one thing: you're in Tennessee Williams country, specifically that region from whence came Orpheus Descending, now being revisited at UC Irvine's Studio Theatre. Revised over a period of 17 years by its author, this is an ungainly piece of work steeped in lunacy and sadness. More a tone poem than a linear story, it pulls a Wallenda between high theatricality and stage-bound realism in an often-uneven blend of bloodshed, humor and sweaty, muggy sex. Excellent performances from leads Benjamin Mathes and Kyra Zagorsky (so good I could shrug off the numerous lines about her being old because she captured the character's lonely maturity, if not her age lines) give the script even more of an erotic charge as they sniff each other onstage like two animals.
Brava to director Amanda McRaven for risking such difficult material: her smart ensemble and technical team (all picture-perfect) and her nimble handling of Williams' world zeroes in on his vision, and it ain't pretty: love is brief and tragic, the solitary life inevitable, abuse colors the lightest of exchanges and no good deed goes unpunished. While the violent climax felt too rushed opening night—McRaven needed a beat or two to let the devastation ring true—her lurid, intelligent snapshot of a small town destroying the little beauty it has in it does a rare thing: it doesn't just show you the world through the eyes of another; it lets you experience it.
ORPHEUS DESCENDING AT UC IRVINE STUDIO THEATRE, 300 ARTS, IRVINE, (949) 824-2787. THURS.-FRI., MARCH 8-9, 8 P.M., SAT., 2 & 8 P.M. $8-$10.