Thursday 27 April 2017

 Piano Teacher = grief + release thru music
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night &
those costumes & the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

Trying to find a re-connect with piano prowess is not easy when struck dumb by grief.
David Cooper photo of Megan Leitch as Erin.
From the footlights : Some say there are but two emotions, love & fear. Others claim three fundamental moods rule us : mad, sad, glad. But that at any moment we choose which one. Grief is "sad", for sure. And clearly it has elements of both love and fear that inform it. But the extent to which we can choose our way out of grief -- or not -- lies at the heart of The Piano Teacher by Dorothy Dittrich now playing at ACT's 1st Ave. stage.

Director Yvette Nolan describes the show thus : "Dorothy's characters grapple with loss and grief, as we all do. They wonder why, and then they stumble forward, they catch each other when one threatens to tumble. And through it all they are buoyed by, yearning for, uplifted by, art. The piano, music, the very act of creation, is the antidote to grief, the answer to and the expression of loss."

Bartleby, meanwhile, reminds us how Robert Frost's 1915 poetry collection North of Boston is analogous, its poems "concerned with human tragedies and fears, his reaction to the complexities of life, and his ultimate acceptance of his burdens". Chapter 9 is where the famous Frost observation is made, twice-over : "The only way out is through."

And that sentiment precisely is what is echoed by playwright Dittrich in her script. She observes that grief "is one of life's most difficult passages and one that is not easily shared". In my life no question : an emotional continuum that is completely idiosyncratic, grief. "The notion of experiencing and moving through even the most difficult of feelings, rather than trying to conquer or overcome or suppress, interested me as both a writer and a musician. Something about flow and moving through a feeling stuck me as distinctly musical," Dittrich notes.

Sometimes "playing" requires someone else to plunk the keys while you just hold on for dear life.
David Cooper photo.
What the show brings to the stage : Some folks enjoy a surfeit of joie de vivre. Others suffer a malaise I have termed mal de vivre -- melancholy, the blues, a vague but persistent angst.

Two of this play's three characters are stuck, in their own way, in the latter category. The bereaved and grieving widow / mother Erin (Megan Leitch) is openly in the grip of her pain-&-loss : she doesn't even crack a smile until 10 minutes into Act 2 of this 90-minute show. Her instructor [life coach, guru, piano-bench therapist] Elaine (Caitriona Murphy) is also emotionally crippled a wee bit despite her liberating effect on Erin. Carpenter cum boyfriend Tom (Kamyar Pazandeh), meanwhile, is front-&-centre in the joie camp and offers the show the slight snigger of comic relief it sorely needs.

My seat mate for the performance was a young friend of the family, a millennial chap who'd never been to a live theatre performance before tonight. He was smitten by how weighty and chewy the play's subject matter is, its focus on deep churning festering emotions that impact us all throughout our life's various journeys.

Production values that shine : Set designer David Roberts comes in for particular mention and kudos right up front. This is the first time the ACT 1st Ave. stage has been arranged "runway" style. The set runs E/W the length of the room with the audience in banks of seats facing opposite each other on both the north and south sides of the stage. 

Mr. Roberts' set is spare and minimalist and representative, anchored mid-stage by the baby grand piano that is the centrepiece of the plot, lit.-&-fig. The accompanying pix say just about all. Except for the barely visible strings -- 20 of them -- that descend from ceiling to floor in the set's living room area. They are arranged syncopatically to represent the random threads and strings, piano and otherwise, that intersect the play's characters and their musical lives.

Runway staging, like the more common theatre-in-the round or alley-style arrangements, runs the risk of characters having their backs to a large swack of the audience too often. Not under the wand and eminently capable hand of director Yvette Nolan, however.  The efforts of all three cast to pivot and swivel themselves to share their persona with the entire room are admirable. 

Talking through pain is can be the only way out of it as Erin discovers with Tom's help.
David Cooper photo.

Acting pin-spots : My seat mate joined me in remarking on the particularly nuanced performance of Caitriona Murphy as the arthritic piano teacher Elaine who pines for the performer life she left behind when the stiffening in her joints set in at a young age. She observes, repeatedly, that Canadian jazz great Oscar Peterson gnarled with arthritis his whole career. Still, she fights back in her own way, describing both musical and human dramatics  : "We live in patterns, consciously or unconsciously. And we are always creating new patterns," she says, "new stories, new rituals that give us new shape and form : how would we ever hold ourselves together if we didn't?"

When she finally gets Erin to join her in a duet arrangement of Aaron Copland's "Saturday Night Waltz" from his iconic piece Rodeo, she declares : "I can't imagine better proof of God than music -- the invisible, the ephemeral...". 

Long have I said how music transcends mere language : e.g. would Glenn Gould's performances of Bach's Goldberg Variations be superior if he were a fluent conversationalist in German? Not likely. His trademark grunts and snorts while recording say more than any half-hearted mimic of Joel Gray's Guten Abend, meine Damen und Herren! ever could. 

Who gonna like : Faithful readers of BLR know how fond this reviewer is of intimate small-space black-box theatre. The staging of The Piano Teacher physically as well as its casting and its blocking and the actors' crisp execution of their roles all contribute to a rich evening theatrically and thematically. The nearly-full-house opening night gave the group a gusty and heartfelt standing-o. Nice! Not knee-jerk I felt.

Particulars :  Produced by The Arts Club as its 11th Silver Commission. Performed at the BMO Theatre Centre, 1st Avenue at Columbia.  On until May 14, 2017.  Run-time two hours including one Intermission.  Tickets & schedule information via phone at 604.687.1644 or by visiting Arts Club.

Production crew :  Director Yvette Nolan.  Dramaturg Rachel Ditor.  Set Designer David Roberts.  Costume Designer Jenifer Darbellay.  Lighting Designer Kyla Gardiner.  Sound Designer Patrick Pennefather.  Stage Manager Alison Spearin.  Apprentice Stage Manager Sandra Drag.

Performers : Megan Leitch (Erin).  Caitriona Murphy (Elaine).  Kamyar Pazandeh (Tom).


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