September 26, 2017

Melancholy Play at Piven Theatre

Every so often, I attend a play or musical without consulting reviews and with no pre-conceived notion of what I may see or hear. “Melancholy Play” presented by Piven Theatre Workshop at the Noyes Cultural Center in Evanston was a happy surprise. This chamber musical is rather like an abstract painting as opposed to a figurative Norman Rockwell canvas.  Phantom of the Opera or The Music Man this is not.

The five character cast sing and act impeccably finding the right mix of absurdity and emotional realism. An excellent string quartet and a sparse piano part provide the musical underpinnings where almost everything is underscored. Todd Almond’s music is at once fresh, modern and melodic. The bright star of the piece is playwright Sarah Ruhl’s script with the heroine, Tilly exploring her relationship with melancholy. The composer has taken Ruhl’s poetic dialogue and set these words to music. Listeners wanting song forms (verse, chorus) will be disappointed, but the result is a seamless stream of spoken dialogue and sung material. The audience rarely claps after people sing because they are effortlessly drawn forward and not cued to applaud just because someone has stopped singing.

Pulitzer prize finalist and Tony nominee for best new play, Sarah Ruhl attended classes at Piven in her younger years so this is a gratifying “coming home” production. Director Peggy Noonan makes this small space seem immense with her imaginative use of stage movement and actor placement. One character sits on the piano bench while singing; another lounges on a staircase or drapes white material behind them as they cross the stage. The sung group numbers get a stereophonic quality with the actors spread out at the far reaches of the stage. Inventive lighting and sound also add a magical quality.

I have one auditory complaint: the actors are not miked so the seating area next to the piano is sometimes a poor place to catch all of the singing and dialogue on the other side of the stage. With that said, I love the chamber quality of unamplified voices and instruments.

In a question and answer forum with the cast after a Sunday show, I facetiously called this work a cross between “The Fantasticks” and a play by Eugene Ionesco. If that delights rather than scares you, by all means wangle a seat to see this charming show before the extended June 21 closing. As an inside joke, you may want to snack on some almonds before seeing the show.

http://piventheatre.org/2015-season/

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