The Old Mezzo, by Susan Dworkin. Directed by Kristen Van Ginhoven.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Much of he company; photo provided
". . .forbidden to date the Muse."
Wartime threats hang over the young Alyssa in her European home, threats that could take away the girl’s relationship with her Muse, the inspiration for a life in music, all music, any music from Opera down to the basics of jazz and popular rhythm and blues. The illegitimate daughter of a woman whose basic talents consist of sex and fine cooking; the adopted daughter of a great choral conductor whose passions lean toward Italian men; Alyssa finds her own release in the subtle passions of an American soldier from the mid-west and her relationship to the inspiration of her music. She also has a friend, Pow, a musician destined for greatness in spite of the political morass that surrounds the two girls.
Late in life, teaching a class for singers in another country, the Old Mezzo plays out her story for the edification of her young followers and also for her own special need to come to grips with her past and discover why so much went wrong for her when all she wanted, really, was the music. There is nothing so special here in this story: hatred for the betrayer of her trust, longing for the opportunities missed, pride in her accomplishments and that awful sense of loss when thinking about her life and its ugly twists - these are commonplace issues in a world that tends to repeat its errors over and over.
The big difference here is in how playwright Susan Dworkin pulls so much together in such a tightly realized script and how director Kristen Van Ginhoven focuses it all so perfectly for her chamber group of actors and her accompaniment of audience. The two creators telescope time with clarity. They create whole-bodied creatures with a visual image and a phrase or two. The students, all returning from a funeral, set up the entrance of Alyssa brilliantly. She takes center stage and, like the diva she is, she never relinquishes it. For Eileen Schuyler in the role of Alyssa it is simply the right place to be and who would ever question that right. Her complete control of her role and the naturalness with which she inhabits her character make it only logical and correct for her to hold that down-stage center spot even when she is nowhere near it in reality.
The buggy ride through Alyssa’s Hungarian-style goulash of a life only takes her 85 minutes to relate in her psycho-therapy drama. Schuyler, under Van Ginhoven’s fine direction almost dances her way, but her movement is subtler than dance movement and her interpretation is softer than music would allow. She moves, instead, as though in a hard-edged dreamworld. Like Dickens with "A Christmas Carol" Dworkin guides her into and out of her memories as she relives the music along with the comedy and drama of her life. That this never feels awkward or phony is a tribute to Schuyler’s ability to stay inside the play and the character and to never overplay a single moment, even the most melodramatic as she confronts Pow and loses her best chance for a professional future.
As Pow, and as Sally the young singer working in the "exercise," Elizabeth Donnelly does a wonderful job. Both of her realizations are accurate and honest and especially as Pow this is a grave necessity. Without that honesty Donnelly could easily destroy the play; however she has what it takes and it takes us into that world of Alyssa’s life with strength and perseverance.
Erin Ouellette turns the mother role of Marcelle into something larger than just the probably French woman who mothers Alyssa and still manages to lose her and everything else when her husband turns on her. The sweetness, light and vegetable shortening turn instantly into virago-based mania in her hands and the alternate soul’s reveal is both moving and memorable.
Rylan Morsbach plays Billy the accompanist and Captain Billy the American soldier and Louie the piano tuner whose friendship with Marcelle strikes the fatal blow in her life. He has a wonderful open-faced charm and his sly little mannerisms as Louie disappear completely into the disingenuousness of Captain Billy. Dworkin builds surprises into this character’s characters and they continually surprise and delight in Morsbach’s excellent hands.
It is the performance of Ryan Winkles that truly opens up Alyssa’s odd and quirky world for us. A jealous young singer he can hardly contain his antagonism and his fury concerning his teacher and his unfinished script for the "exercise" and as he turns into her father and reveals that man’s quirks Winkles manages to do so with a clear understanding that he is perhaps going too far but finds himself unable to stop and pull back. His picture of Johannes is that of a marten ready to devour its young if that child was only made of Euonymous instead of flesh and blood. This frustration stands out in the way he treats Alyssa, alternately encouraging and harshly critical. This actor is ready for the bigger world of theater, ready to take a large step forward and his work here is proof positive that a large career looms for him.
Some lovely work has been done on the minimalist stage at the Berkshire Museum with a valid, changeable set designed by Juliana Von Haubricht, idealised costumes created by Rita B. Watson, and these fine stage pictures lit and illuminated by Meryl Joseph who understands the play’s shifts in place, time, time of day and mood. Brad Berridge’s sound design could have been a hair louder, but beyond that his choices were exquisite.
WAM Theatre is making its mark early in the season with a world premiere play that Artistic Director Van Ginhoven has tightly woven around a spindle of refined confinement. There should be no fears about the success that is almost guaranteed to this play. WAM’s production is a winner, a prover, and no one can ever take that away from the show.
If it comes to your neighborhood, don’t miss it. If it isn’t scheduled where you are, then come see it in Pittsfield. You don’t want to miss this special opportunity.
The Old Mezzo plays at the Berkshire Museum, 39 South Street, Pittsfield, MA, through October 28. For tickets and information call the box office at 1-800-838-3006 or go to www.WAMTheatre.com.