Melancholy Play’/ WAM Theatre, Pittsfield
“MELANCHOLY”? UH-UH. Whatever this play is about (and my view of that will be addressed later), director Kristen van Ginhoven has grabbed Sarah Ruhl’s play by the neck, cherished, prodded and mocked the characters, and, in the process, dumped the audience down some Ruhl/van Ginhoven rabbit’s hole with a resounding, “Hah! Take that!”
Down there we meet Tilly (played passionately by Betsy Holt), the child/woman whose “melancholy” way of taking in the world and spitting it out to others releases something buried in each of them. It results in their passionate attachment to her. Tilly/Holt is an irresistible Holly Golightly — Shirley Temple — Judy Garland, spouting words that are always reaching.
We meet Lorenzo, Tilly’s psychoanalyst. Per Janson plays him with more decibels than the small space at the top of the Beacon Cinema in Pittsfield really requires — and with a super-stylized, exhausting physical energy. Psycho indeed! But it is impossible not to love him.
We meet Frank, a tailor (played by Todd Quick) who is achingly tender and nuanced in his early love scene with Tilly, and libidinally turned off when she trades her melancholy for mindless, banal happiness. (Her other associates react similarly.)
We meet Frances, physicist turned hairdresser, played by the crisp, attractive, tightly packaged Karen Lee, who turns into a tightly packaged almond with no apparent melancholy or happiness attached. Yes, an almond.
The related names (Frances and Frank), along with some mirror-image staging and unison dialogue, make for a delightful Shakespeare/Boys From Syracuse moment.
We meet nurse Joan, lesbian partner of Frances. (Triangular sandwiches accompany the love-triangle, Tilly, Frances, Joan.) Surely someone has spilled Krazy Glue between Leigh Strimbeck’s vertebrae and cemented this character there. It is the peak comedic moment of “Melancholy Play,” when Joan/Strimbeck accepts a vial of Tilly’s tears. The actor says it all in hilarious slow motion.
A nifty musical score by Michael Roth underlines many moments of the dialogue. As executed in an upstage corner by cellist Erika Helen Smith, it occasionally competes too heavily with the dialogue, and Roth might not be thrilled with the singing sections of his score (the women being especially pitch-squishy); but in general the music works. It is a pleasure when, at the end, Smith emerges from her corner to dance with Lorenzo and the others. A recorded cello takes over in an exuberant Lehár waltz and the lovely cellist shows off a well-executed penché arabesque.
Probably very few audience members actually ate the single almond that they found on their seats upon entering. (This audience member was deterred by the thought of the many rear ends and silent farts that must have occupied those seats.) But yes, an almond is a neat, compact little package to hold hard, dry reality and human essence. When Frances leaps from her window — whether to Neverland like Peter Pan or to a smushy sidewalk death — only an almond remains to connect with her survivors.
The play, as directed by van Ginhoven, was at least in part about theater. About life imitating movies, melodrama, farce, vaudeville, musicals, Shakespeare, Greek choruses, dance, and religious ritual and the human uses of all those arts. It’s about “that’s the way it is, and here’s how we adjust to it.”
In this production, after the playwright’s words, the major device is life’s most basic “lifeyness”: movement. WAM’s Melancholy Play commits to full-energy movement. For that, among other things, we may thank some amazing actors and a director to be reckoned with.
After all the frantic human ado, the audience is left with the hard, dry, unsentimental little almond to chew upon — or not. (They gave us some in a package for toothy contemplation on the way home.)
Melancholy Play runs through November 21. Tickets are on sale at 1-800-838-3006 or at www.wamtheatre.com.