‘The Rose Tattoo,’ Marisa Tomei Is Tennessee Williams’ Fiery, Sensual Serafina, in a Stellar Performance
Atmosphere, heat, the heavy scent of roses, candles, mysticism, undulating waves, torpid rhythms, steamy melodies, fantastical rows of pink flamingos, a resonant altar of the Catholic Madonna. These elements combine to form the symbolic backdrop and evocative wistful earthiness that characterize Roundabout Theatre Company’s The Rose Tattoo at American Airlines Theatre.
Tennessee Williams playful, emotionally effusive tragic-comic love story written as a nod to Williams own Sicilian lover Frank Merlo, is in its third revival on Broadway in a limited engagement until 8th December (the Catholic date of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception). Reflecting upon Marisa Tomei’s portrayal of Serafina in The Rose Tattoo, this is an ironic, humorous conclusion in keeping with the evolution of her character which Tomei embraces as she exudes verve, sensuality, fury, heartbreak and breathtaking, joyful authenticity in the part.
If any role was made for Tomei, divinity and Tennessee Williams have placed it in her lap and she has run with it broadening the character Serafina Delle Rosa with astute sensitivity and intuition. Tomei pulls out all the stops growing her character’s nuanced insight. She slips into Serafina’s sensual skin and leaps into her expanding emotional range as she morphs in the first act from grandiose and joyful boastfulness to gut-wrenching impassioned sorrow and in the second act to ferocity, an explosion of suppressed sexual desire and its release. All of these hot points she elucidates with a fluidity of movement, hands, limbs, head tosses, eye rolls which express Serafina’s wanton luxury of indulgent feeling and effervescent life.
The contradictions of Serafina’s character move toward a hyperbolic excess of extremes. When speaking of her husband Rosario and their relationship, their bed is a sanctum of religion where they express their torpid love each night. She effuses to Assunta (the excellent Carolyn Mignini) how she mysteriously felt the conception of her second child the moment it happened. A rose tattoo like the one her husband Rosario wore on his chest appeared like religious stigmata without the dripping blood. And it burned over her heart, a heavenly sign, like others she receives as she talks to the statue of the Madonna, and remains a worshipful adherent to Mother Mary, praying and receiving the anointed wisdom whenever necessary.
Rosario’s family is that of a “baron,” though Sicily is the “low” country of Italy and an area fogged over with undesirables, thieves and questionable heritages as the crossroads of Europe. We know this “baron-baroness” is an uppity exaggeration from the looks on the faces of her gossipy neighbors and particularly La Strega (translated as witch) who is scrawny, crone-like and insulting. Constance Shulman is convincing as the conveyor of Ill Malocchio-the evil eye. Her presence manifests the bad-luck wind that Assunta refers to at the top of the play and to which Serafina superstitiously attributes the wicked event that upends her life forever.
Williams’s characterization of Serafina is brilliant and complex. Director Trip Cullman and Tomei have effected her intriguing possibilities and deep yearnings beyond the stereotypical Italian barefoot and pregnant woman of virginal morals like Our Lady. It is obvious that Tomei has considered the contradictions, the restraints of Serafina’s culture and her neighbors as well as her potential to be a maverick who will break through the chains and bondages of her religion and old world folkways after her eyes are opened.
We are proud that Serafina disdains the gossiping neighbors with the exception of Assunta and perhaps her priest. Though Serafina’s world does not extend beyond her home, the environs of the beach, her daughter Rosa (Ella Rubin) and Rosario, a truck driver who transports illegal drugs under his produce, she is a fine seamstress. And in her business interactions with her neighbors and acquaintances, we note that she has money, is industrious, resourceful and a canny negotiator.
It makes sense that Rosario (whom we never see because he is a fantasy-Williams point out) treats her like a baroness filling their home with roses at various times to reassure her of her grandness. And the poetic symbol of the rose as a sign of their love and the romance of their relationship is an endearing touch, reminiscent of the rose tattoo on his chest signifying his commitment to her. At the outset of the play, a rose is in Serafina’s hair which she wears waiting for Rosario to come home. As she does, we believe she is fulfilled in their love and the happy status of their lives in a home on the shores of paradise, the Gulf Coast of Mississippi.
What is not manifest and what lurks beneath becomes the revelation that all is not well, that her Rosario is not real, but is an illusion. Typical of Williams’ work are the undercurrents, the sub rosa meanings. The rose is also a symbol of martyrdom, Christ’s martyrdom. And it is this martyrdom that Serafina must endure when word comes back that Rosario has been killed, burned in a fiery crash which warrants his body be cremated. Unfortunately, the miraculous son of the burning rose on her chest that appeared and disappeared, she aborted caused by the extreme trauma of Rosario’s death.
The rose as Williams’ choice symbol is superbly complex. For Rosario’s rose tattoo also represents his amorous lust for women, one of whom is Estelle Hohengarten (Tina Benko) who asks Serafina to make a gorgeous, rose-colored silk shirt for “her man.” When Estelle steals Rosario’s picture behind Serafina’s back, we know that Rosario led a double life and we are annoyed at Estelle’s arrogance and presumption to ask his wife to make such a gift shirt. But in William’s depth of characterization for Estelle, most probably Rosario is also philandering on Estelle who, to try to keep him close, gives him expensive gifts like hand-made silk shirts.
Williams clues us in that her faith and passion for Rosario has blinded her judgment and overcome her sharp intellect and wisdom. In fact it is an idolatry. Her religion stipulates that no human being should be worshiped or sacrificed for. Serafina’s excessive personality has doomed her to tragedy, betrayal and duplicity with Rosario. Ironically, his death is her freedom, but she must suffer his and her son’s loss ,a burden almost too great to bear, even for one as strong as Serafina who does become distracted, unkempt and uninterested in life.
Because Rosario, the wild rose with thorns is not worthy of Serafina’s love, after his death there is only pity for the cuckholded Serafina and a finality to her exuberant life until the truth of who Rosario really was lifts her into a healthy reality. Tomei’s breakdown is striking and Williams creates the tension that in weeping for the “love” of her life who indeed has betrayed her, she will be wasting herself. He also affirms the huge gulf between her ability to live again and her lugubrious state which continues for three years as she mourns an illusion.
The question remains. Will she come to the end of herself? The romantic fantasy held together with the glue of her faith and the enforced, manic chastity of her old world Italian mores must be vanquished. But how? It is in the form of the charismatic and humorous Alvaro Mangiacavallo. But until then Serafina withers. Isolating herself, she implodes with regret, doubt, sorrow and dolorous grief, as well as anger at her daughter Rosa who wants to live and find her own love like her mother’s.
The mother-daughter tensions are realistically expressed as are the scenes between Tomei and Jack (Burke Swanson) Rosa’s boyfriend, which are humorous. Altogether, the second act is brighter; it is companionable comedy to the tragedy of the first act.
When she meets Alvaro, in spite of herself, she responds with her whole being to his attractiveness. As they become acquainted, she accepts his interest in her for what she may represent; a new beginning in his life. It is a new beginning that he tries to thread into her life to resurrect her sexual passions and emotions of love. Thus, he pulls out all the stops for this opportunity to win her, even having a rose tattooed upon his chest in the hope of taking Rosario’s place in her heart.
Emun Elliott is spectacular as the clownish, emotionally appealing, lovable suitor who sees Serafina’s worth and beauty and attempts to endear himself to her with the tattoo. Along with Serafina’s discovering Rosario’s betrayal, Elliott’s portrayal of Alvaro solidifies and justifies why Serafina jumps at the opportunity to be with him. He is cute. He is real. He is as emotional and simpatico as she is. He is Sicilian and above all, he is available and interested in her. It is not only his steamy body that reminds her of Rosario’s, but she is attracted to his humor, sensibility and sensitivity of feeling which mirrors hers.
After discovering Rosario’s duplicity, understanding Alvaro’s concern and care for three women dependents and his honesty in admitting he is a buffoon disarms Serafina. Alvaro’s strength and lack of ego in commenting that his father was considered the village idiot is an important revelation for her as well. Indeed, as she views who he is, she senses that his humility and humorous self-effacement is worth more than all of Rosario’s boastfulness that he was a baron which he wasn’t.
As the truth enlightens her, Tomei’s Serafina evolves and sheds the displacement and her sense of confusion and loss which was also a loss of her own imagined “secure” identity as Rosario’s “wife.” Wife, indeed! Rosario’s mendacity made her into a cuckhold and a brokenhearted fool over a man who was not real. At least Alvaro is real. The comparison between the men reinforced with Rosario’s unfaithfulness, which she can now admit to herself, prompts her to reject the religion that kept her blinded and the antiquated mores that made her a fool and kept her alone and in darkness.
Shepherded by Cullman, Elliott and Tomei create an uproarious, lively and fun interplay between these two characters who belong together, like “two peas in a pod” and have only to realize it, which, of course, Alvaro does before Serafina. Tomei’s and Elliott’s scenes together soar, strike sparks of passion and move with the speed of light. The comedy arises from spot-on authenticity. The symbolic poetry, the shattering of the urn, the ashes disappearing, the light rising on the ocean waves (I loved this background projection) shine a new day. All represent elements of hope and joy and a realistic sense of believing, grounded in truth for both protagonists.
Tomei, Elliott, Cullman and the ensemble have resurrected Williams’ The Rose Tattoo keeping the themes current and the timeless elements real. Duplicity, lies, unfaithfulness, love and the freedom to unshackle oneself from destructive folkways that lead one into darkness and away from light and love are paramount themes in this production. And they especially resonate for our time.
I can’t recommend this production enough for its memorable, indelible performances especially by Elliott and Tomei shepherded with sensitivity by Cullman. The evocativeness and beauty of the staging, design elements and music add to the thematic understanding of Williams’ work and characters. Kudos goes to the creative team: Mark Wendland (set design) Clint Ramos (costume design) Ben Stanton (lighting design) Lucy Mackinnon (projection design) Tom Watson (hair and wig design) Joe Dulude II (make-up design). Bravo to Fiz Patton for the lovely original music & sound design.
The Rose Tattoo runs with one intermission at American Airlines Theatre (42nd between 7th and 8th) until 8th December. Don’t miss it. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
Choir Boy written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, superbly directed by Trip Cullman is a tour de force that thrills with its beauty and grace and grieves with its recognition that a fine education may advance one in the world, but it doesn’t answer the longing in one’s heart for individual love and acceptance. And so it goes for Pharus Jonathan Young a super achiever who places all his investment in his golden voice and ambitious pride to excel and be someone despite the abuse he receives at the hands of the adult male black community in his hometown and the teenage black students at The Charles R. Drew Preparatory School for Boys. Drew, as it’s affectionately known, is an elite, religious, black, male prep school which shapes black men to be accepted into Ivy League Schools and shepherds them toward sterling behavior to succeed in their careers and in life. The question is, as always in Prep Schools. Are the sub rosa mores being transmitted a benefit or a nullification?
Choir Boy opens with the 49th Commencement for Charles R. Drew Prep’s graduating seniors. The gorgeous voice of Pharus Jonathan Young (Jeremy Pope in a vibrant, nuanced and fierce portrayal) rings out into the auditorium as he leads the choir in a song about “Trusting and Obeying Jesus” as the only way to happiness. The irony of the song and what occurs during the singing is reflective of the play’s underlying themes. It also is the linchpin upon which rests much of the action to follow.
What the staff, family and friends of the graduating seniors do not hear are the whispered insults and defamations by Bobby Marrow one of the choir members who clearly disdains and despises Pharus. Upset, distracted, Pharus stops singing and turns around to confront Bobby in a stare down. Bobby who achieves what he wants, to upset and deflect Pharus from his concentration, silences his whisperings. These opening salvos of raw animosity and tension between Bobby (J Quinton Johnson’s aggressions and rage are sustained throughout) and Pharus reveal the conflict which McCraney intensifies and escalates in this thrilling production that is currently at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
After the ceremony, Headmaster Marrow (Chuck Cooper employs his adroit acting skills with moment-to-moment precision) reprimands Pharus for stopping in mid-song, however, Pharus cleverly responds and we understand that he will not be cowed and will maintain his dignity and honor. Though Marrow presses him to explain, Pharus who has been voted as Choir Lead because of his hard work and golden voice evokes the “behavior of a “Drew man.” He tells Headmaster Marrow (the name is more than ironic), “A Drew man doesn’t tell on his brother. He allows him the honor of confessing himself.” The conflict is clearly expressed, and we understand Pharus is proud of being elected to head the choir which school-wide is considered an honor. However, we wonder why Bobby has chosen to slur Pharus’ sexuality and use the “N” word to demean him. Is this mere jealousy? Or has Pharus provoked him?
Thus, from the outset, McCraney and the fine direction and staging of the opening scenes by Trip Cullman have engaged us. From this point on we are intrigued to learn about these two individuals and discover whether they will resolve their differences by themselves or with the help of the Headmaster and their friends in the choir.
McCraney’s play is a hybrid (musical, comedy, drama). It is not easily defined or pigeonholed and this is just one of its astounding brilliances. For at crucial junctures in the arc of the plot development, the boys’ chorus breaks into shimmering songs during various practice sessions. And there are dance and rhythmic numbers that relate to the themes. Additionally, humor abides throughout. Yet, there is pathos. In short all the emotional peaks and valleys in life are pinged and resonate with truthfulness.
McCraney’s characterizations are right-on. The leads are distinct individuals; they are finely drawn and by the conclusion of the play we note their development. In an irony reminiscent of our current divisive culture, the young men align either with Pharus or Bobby and the behind-the-scenes dynamic of support and friendship escalates the conflict between the two adversaries throughout. the action.
Additionally, McCraney reveals how the characters negotiate the mores of Drew with lip service and sometime sincerity. Intrigue and surreptitiousness are necessary to get along. And it is the intrigue that crashes into the barricade of Drew “do’s and don’ts” that the characters cannot help but contravene. Thus, they bloody themselves. As a result the explosive scenes bring this incredible social and cultural expose of a black young men’s prep school into the same territory as any white male prep school. Though Drew has a religious fundamental base, the rages, the conflicts, the loves defy class, color, economics. The human heart and human nature unfortunately run true to form. Overcoming evil intent is hard won everywhere. How the protagonist Pharus manages to triumph despite his own self-destructive impulses and need to “be Pharus” is the crux of the play.
The themes relating to division, separation, isolation and, remaining proud and courageous when others attempt to destroy you, McCraney explores with these individuals using humor, song, dance. The plot twists startle. The play’s dynamic is well constructed. From the initial conflict, Bobby, Pharus and their friends and foes are sent spinning until they reach their destinations.
Importantly, from the outset, we understand that the stakes for Pharus and a few other non-legacy young men are very high. Non-legacy men have advanced to Drew by merit based upon their efforts and skills. Pharus has worked very hard to receive a scholarship which he must maintain to take the shot he’s been given or fall by the wayside like other young black men. Thus, in his discussion with Headmaster Marrow, we learn that for Pharus, his newly appointed position as Choir Lead means everything to him. But would he risk that for something even more important?
On the other hand, legacy men like Bobby don’t have Pharus’ worries. Additionally, Bobby enjoys the favor of his uncle’s being the Headmaster. As the arc of development moves toward its climax, we note that Bobby is hell-bent on unseating Pharus and taking the honor for himself. Who will win, who will lose? Clarity of conflict and the high stakes are the genius of this production along with the sensational choral work, the dancing, sensitive acting and the extraordinary meld of the ensemble, all of which makes Choir Boy a uniquely enthralling work..
During the course of the production, we discover the dynamic interplay of the young men who are part of the chorus that Pharus has been chosen to lead because of his academic excellence and golden voice. All who have lead roles are just terrific. Junior Davis, foil of Johnson’s Bobby, nearly stops the show with his hysterical dancing to impress Mr. Pendleton (Austin Pendleton, is humorously grand. Yet he’s expressively and authentically emotional when he reacts to Bobby’s use of the “N” word. It’s a hallowed, stirring moment.) Caleb Eberhardt’s David Heard is sensitive and solid in his portrayal. The sadness he evokes as he walks away from the school is an injustice we take to heart. As Pharus’ roommate and friend Anthony Justin ‘AJ’ James, John Clay III is superb. His comedic timing is spot on and his poignance and humanity is what is needed to help Pharus deal with the acute pain of life-long devastation he is trying to work through.
The production would not be as superb as it is without the following creative artists’ efforts. Special and heartfelt kudos to Jason Michael Webb (Music Direction, Arrangements & Original Music) David Zinn (Scenic & Costume Design), Peter Kaczorowski (Lighting Design) Fitz Patton (Original Music & Sound Design) Cookie Jordan (Hair & Makeup Design) Thomas Schall (Fight Direction) Camille A. Brown (Choreography).
Don’t walk, run to see Choir Boy at The Samuel Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue. The production has no intermission and runs one hour forty-five minutes until 24 February. You can call for tickets at 212-239-6200, go in person to the Friedman or get tickets online at their website.