Melancholy Play by Sarah Ruhl. Directed by Kristen van Ginhoven.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Per Janson and Todd Quick
"...still countries to be discovered"
In Sarah Ruhlís earliest produced work, Melancholy Play (2001), the subject may not be roses but flowers play a major part in our impressions of the show and its people. Tilly, the heroine, wears a crown of flowers; her principal love interest, Frank, sports a rose in bud; her therapist, Lorenzo, hosts a blue zinnia (I think) over his heart. Without a doubt there is some sort of message here, though not as deep and overwhelming as the message of the almond placed on every seat in the audience. Here is the height of subliminal theatrics: an almond on every seat. Look for it. Itís there. Eat the almond. You must eat it and soon, because by the end of the second act you may fear your almond. Eat the almond.
So how do the flowers make their point? They are ever-present. Other things change, but the flowers are always there. In this farcical melodramusical there is a presence of nature and her imagery that pervades the place. Likewise, in life there are hidden secrets (bridled lust, for example) that, when they come out and are revealed, appear silly, so in this play the secrets that are revealed are farcically, melodramusically silly as well.
Melancholy, in Tillyís case, inspires love unbounded. Happiness dictates a change of mind and a change of state of mind also. Tilly happy equals everyone else morbid, miserable and morphing into something they cannot be in real life. You might say her sanity drives everyone else nuts. Eat the almond.
WAM Theatre, for its first full production, has undertaken this unique experience and in doing so has found an introductory presentation that is both memorable and delightful. Whether you like this play or not you will not be able to stop yourself from smiling. The show, as directed by the very talented Kristen van Ginhoven, is a non-stop gallop through a world of understated enchantment. Van Ginhoven understands the elements of farce and pacing is very high on her list of items to explore. She takes her actors on a physical journey of the mind and along the way discovers the high-road to hilarity, the path to morbidity, the journey to jealousy and the ridge of romance. She has approached this work without fear that her audience might not be taken with the results. Instead she has forged a steeled structure that need not fear the winds of time, the insulting slurs of plagiarism or the inhibited reactions of inhibited reactionaries. As a result she has made a home-run hit her first time at bat locally. And so we eat the almond.
Tilly is played by the delightful Betsy Holt. In all of her blondness she is startlingly honest and adult. She brings to the mix a peculiar shredding of our emotional concepts: her melancholy is happy and her happiness is giddy. She is an apple who hasnít fallen far from her tree, a comic actress whose dark side is illuminated through the role she plays. Erika Helen Smith, who fiddles with her cello throughout the show and only emerges as an on-stage character in the final moments, is a vision through a window, a vision of pure delight.
There are lesbians in this play, happy, content, maladjusted lesbians to be sure, but loving, enjoyable, wholesome lesbians. Karen Lee is the younger one, Frances, a hairdresser who was once a physicist. Lee is sexy, funny, touching and just a bit mad as she takes her almond cue a bit too seriously. She mocks herself as she maneuvers her way through relationships that rob her of sense of smell. She has a hard role, a shelled but redolent and nutty demeanor. She handles all of this with a dry, dramatic aplomb.
Her lover, nurse Joan, is played by Leigh Strimbeck, with an assurance and sense of place and purpose that is absolute. There is no denying Joan is a nurse. It would seem that there is no acting going on here, but this Joan is THE Joan and that Joan is a nurse. Her physicality of the role is tremendous; just watch her entrances and exits and you learn so much more about who Joan is in relation to her lover and her professional world. She also has an accent that places her as foreign to the environment portrayed in this play. Much is made of that, so we know itís true. Brilliantly it is Strimbeck at the wheel, for she does all of this very, very well.
The two men in the play are Frank and Lorenzo, played by (respectively) Todd Quick and Per Janson. Quick is quirky, ultimately likeable and almost loveable at times. He and his character grow rapidly into "neighbors" you might consider fun for an afternoon barbecue. What happens to Frank is right out of the W.S. Gilbert school of logic but somehow it seems just about right. Quick plays the tiny turns in his psyche with an ease that makes them seem normal and appropriate even when they're clearly nowhere near normal
Jansonís Lorenzo is a heavily accented, deeply affected, dolefully benevolent and balefully wicked character, more complex than King Lear and much funnier. His hot-blooded scenes are as humorous as his self-centered sequences. He makes Lorenzo into a Douglas Fairbanks wannabe and then proceeds to shoot himself in the foot with a bow and arrow. This actor is dangerously free with his body and a danger to all almonds, everywhere. Eat the almond.
At New Stages, the walls of the theater are as much a part of the set as the stage itself. Designer Juliana Haubrich does a fine job of integrating the elements. Yvonne Perry has gone straight to farce-world in costuming her characters and it pays off brilliantly. Nick Webb has done a fine job of lighting an ever-moving company in a difficult space and the music by Michael Roth is perfect in the background and downright weird in the vocal sections. He is right in keeping with Ruhlís words and van Ginhovenís actions
This new company has introduced itself to the community with a wacky world of comedy that makes as much sense as possible out of metamorphosis and nuts. Missing an opportunity to get involved with the melancholy world of this show is missing a chance at the best fun of your week. Eat the almond! Or rather, donít. You might want it for later
Melancholy Play will be on stage through November 21 at New Stages above the Beacon Theatre on North Street in Pittsfield, MA. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-418-0999.