by Carol Rocamora
A comedy… by Tennessee Williams? Who knew?!
Actually, we should have known. The author tells us so himself. “The Rose Tattoo was my love-play to the world,” he wrote. “I have been, for the first time in my life, happy. [The play is] a monument to that happiness, a house built of images and words for that happiness to live in.”
The idea for the play occurred to Williams while in a creative slump (1948) after the huge successes of The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire (followed by the unexpected criticism of Summer and Smoke). Then Williams met Frank Merlo, with whom he fell deeply in love, and they traveled to Sicily together. There he met Merlo’s family and heard stories from their past which ignited his dramatic imagination. The result was The Rose Tattoo, which he set in a Sicilian community on the Gulf Coast between New Orleans and Mobile in 1950.
Love – or more specifically – desire, is the theme that courses through all of Williams’s rich and passionate oeuvre. But in the case of Serafina Delle Rose, female protagonist of The Rose Tattoo, it’s a raw, red-hot desire with the furious force of a tsunami, blowing everyone else to the stage’s periphery.
Serafina, a local seamstress, has just buried her young (and virile) husband, with whom she’s shared a passionate sexual bond. Crazed with grief to the point of numbness, she locks herself in her tiny house for three years, keeping her fifteen-year-old adolescent daughter Rosa (Ella Rubin) prisoner, too. Her grief soon intensifies into rage, when she learns that her beloved husband had been unfaithful with Estelle Hohengarten (Tina Benko).
The Rose Tattoo is the story of how Serafina, played by the marvelous Marisa Tomei, finds liberation and rebirth through a new love named Alvaro Mangiacavallo (meaning “eat a horse”- a humorous touch in a play that has many). Like her late husband, Alvaro (Emun Elliott) is a truck driver, who, she describes, has “the body of my husband and the head of a clown.”
“My plays are a plea for understanding of the delicate people,” wrote Williams about his female characters – like the damaged Blanche DuBois (Streetcar), or the delusional Amanda Wingfield, or her desperately shy daughter Laura (Menagerie). Wounded birds, they’re doomed never to fly. But there’s nothing delicate about Serafina. As played by Miss Tomei at the zenith of her dramatic powers, Serafina is the essence of desire itself, and every move of her tortured body reflects her pent-up, conflicting, raging passions. Clad in a pink silk slip for much of the play, she radiates a stunning spectrum of conflicting emotions, exploding into a wild atavistic dance at the end of Act One. Her performance is mesmerizing and memorable.
Tomei is supported by a superb cast of 21, boldly directed by Trip Cullman to maximize the humor and ultimate joy of this play. As Serafina’s newfound lover Alvaro, Emun Elliott gives a terrific performance, and his delightful duets with Tomei are choreographed for maximum comedic effect. Ella Rubin is a lovely Rosa (Serafina’s daughter) matched by Burke Swanson, her naïve young sailor/beau. The parallel journey of mother and daughter to ultimate liberation is touching, indeed.
As for the imaginative, inspired staging, Trip Cullman again takes his cue from the playwright. “This was a play built of movement and color, almost as much as an abstract painting,” Williams wrote of The Rose Tattoo. Accordingly, Cullman has chosen a non-realistic approach, staged on Mark Wendland’s evocative, abstract set. A few elements representing Serafina’s tiny house (filled with religious imagery) are surrounded by bright blue sky and undulating sea, both of which change in color and intensity to reflect the emotions of the scenes. Cullman directs a chorus of black-clad Sicilian women (that includes Andrea Burns), as if they were a Greek chorus surrounding Serafina, watching, judging, warning.
As Williams said about his life at the time of writing this play, “in that happiness, there is the long, inescapable heritage of the painful and perplexed, like the dark corners of a big room.” Cullman and designer Wendland have transformed that vision of dark and light onto the stage. Added touches include a trio of street urchins and a mysterious witch-like character called “the Strega”(Constance Shulman) to intensify the exotic local color, as well as a musician playing Jason Michael Webb’s moody, evocative music.
Cullman’s The Rose Tattoo is a symphony of color, sound, light and feeling – a rich, heady mix of cultural and classical imagery. I can imagine Tennessee Williams, whose famous laugh often rang out from the audience during performances of his plays, sitting through this production, delighted, watching his vision of the transformative power of love come alive onstage.
The Rose Tattoo, by Tennessee Williams, directed by Trip Cullman, at the Roundabout Theatre Company, American Airlines Theatre, through December 8 – Run time 2 hrs. 25 min. (one intermission) . www.roundabouttheatre.org