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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
The Rose Tattoo

If strange things didn't happen,I wouldn't be here. — Alvaro Mangiacavallo
Marisa Tomei (Photo: Daniel Rader)
There is so much sexual tension festering in Serafina Delle Rose's house that Williamstown Theatre festival seems about to erupt in a spontaneous combustion of female libido and longing. Tennessee Williams' fabled folk tale The Rose Tattoo ignites the stage driven by the lusty eroticism of Marisa Tomei's Serafina, a thirty-year-old widow at war with herself and her contradictory impulses and desires. Her young virginal daughter Rosa (Gus Birney) is caught between obeying her strict Sicilian upbringing and embracing her own burgeoning sexuality. This is not a house – it is Mt. Etna and the explosion has been three years in the making.

Opening on Broadway in 1951 this ribald comedy of unbridled passion drew mixed reviews and a Tony for Maureen Stapleton. It is rare among Williams' collection of work about dark secrets, family dysfunction and psychological disorders. In this rich and complex story the characters are larger than life, yet achingly human in their poignant dreams and misapprehensions.

Set in the 50's the play opens to the cheerfully nonsensical music of Louis Prima and a scenic design by Mark Wendland of a flock of pink flamingos and awkwardly tilted set pieces which suggest that reality has taken flight — and it has under the seamless direction of Trip Cullman who has mined the script for every symbolic element and human foible.

The stage runs wild with a skewed fairy tale-like quality, a story of lives waiting for miraculous salvation. Twenty five actors and a goat move in and out of our consciousness as in a strange dream. The audience is blithely invited to embrace this surrealistic flamboyance lit by Ben Stanton's evocative lighting design and always in motion thanks to Lucy McKinnon's endlessly waving ocean projection.

Serafina is a Sicilian seamstress in a small Gulf Coast seaside town whose husband has suddenly died along with her unborn child and all of her dreams. She isolates herself and young daughter in their cottage for the next three years surrounded by gossiping judgmental neighbors, dressed in black whose voices are as pervasive as the telephone wires which crisscross the stage. They comment in the manner of a Greek Chorus on her dilemma while scrutinizing her every move. Assunta (Barbara Rosenblat) is her only friend and spiritual advisor; Rosenblat adds dignity and presence to the role of a local healer in this claustrophobic community.

As Serafina prays daily to the statue of the Madonna to send her a sign she "ticks" her life along in despair. The Strega, witch to Serafina's tormented mind, is played by Constance Shulman with burlesque hilarity and addles Serafina with superstitious old world worries. The children running wild through her house and yard torment her not only by their childish behavior but as reminders of her own losses with no chance of creating new life.

Tomei writhes and moans, her skirt twitching, with a fever that raises the love-making with her dead husband to almost mystic proportions. His ashes in an urn on an elaborate altar magnify the intensity of Serafina's adoration of his god-like memory. Tomei is breathtaking as she embodies this child/woman with a ferocity of conflicted fears, confusion and longing.

Serafina emerges from her anguished trance only to guard her daughter from the world and to clothe her customers. She has let herself sink into depression and spends most of her time undressed, much to Rosa's embarrassment. Though she loves and obeys her mother Rosa chafes under her stringent rules. Birney's Rosa is spirited and after the first act gains strength as she becomes her mother's daughter.

In the second act which encompasses the events of one day, life is turned on its head. First Bessie(Medina Senghore) and Flora(Portia) as two high toned "Ladies" arrive to pick up a pre -ordered outfit. In an hilarious scene straight from a Shakespearean farce, they manage to burst the rosy glow that has held Serafina in thrall to her dead husband. Though the scene is short, it is beautifully realized by the two actresses who play the physical comedy with masterly skill.

Then Rosa brings home a too-good-to-be-true suitor — a young sailor, Jack Hunter (Will Pullen,) who plays the role with such sweetness that his corny lines are believable. Jack is in awe of the Sicilian goddesses of this household and, as if bewitched, submits first to Serafina's and then Rosa's demands; but he is not the only champion to penetrate the cottage walls.

Into this swirling mass of operatic pitched chaos arrives the most unlikely hero — a buffoonish truck driver with the body of a Greek god, who barges into Serafina's fortress and sends her into a lusty frenzy. Alvaro Mangiacavallo (Christopher Abbott) is charmingly manipulative as he confesses his own shortcomings and complications. Abbott's performance is equal to Tomei's as a force of nature. They weave a magical spell as their bodies begin the oldest rhythmic dance, the limbic system in control. We don't need the goat (very well trained, by the way) in the garden to guess where this is leading. The Dionysian rites will commence and return this house to its rightful share of human joy and maybe even a new life.

All of this quixotic lunacy is accompanied with original music by Michael Friedman — captivating Italian folk songs given a beguiling interpretation by Giuseppina (Lindsay Mendez) who smiles knowingly as she sings of love and life. Her reassuring magnetic voice allays our fears for Serafina. We know that this fairy tale will have a hopeful ending and that the mysteries of life are as endless as the ocean waves.

Williams' The Rose Tattoo at Williamstown is powerful and provocative. It is sure to be high on the list of 2016 Berkshire Bests.

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The Rose Tattoo by Tennessee Williams
Director: Trip Cullman
Cast: Marisa Tomei (Serafina Delle Rose) Gus Birney (Rosa Delle Rose) Barbara Rosenblat (Assunta) Leslie Fray (Estelle Hohengarten) Constance Shulman (The Strega) Lindsay Mendez (Giuseppina/Folk Singer) Katie Lee Hill (Miss Yorke) Medina Senghore (Bessie) Portia (Flora) Will Pullen (Jack) Darren Pettie (The Salesman) Alvaro Mangiacavallo (Christopher Abbott)
Main ensemble roles: Sarah Chalfie (Mariella) Hannah Shealy (Violetta) Nicole Villamil (Peppina) Oliver Bingeman, Frances Evans, Jonathan Lewis (The Children) Olivia Abiassi, Madeline McKenzie, Ella Mora, Christian Paxton, Isabella Weiss, Rosie Yadio (High School Graduates)
Set Design: Mark Wendland
Costume Design: Clint Ramos
Lighting Design: Ben Stanton
Sound Design: Fitz Patton
Projection Design: Lucy Mackinnon
Original Music: Michael Friedman
Stage Manager: Jeff Brancato
Running Time: Two hours, fifteen minutes; one intermission
Williamstown Theatre Festival, Main Stage, Williamstown, MA
From 6/28/16; opening 7/2/16; closing 7/17/16
Reviewed by Gloria Miller at 7/2/16 performance

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