DramaWatch: Sarah Ruhl’s Almond Joy

"Melancholy Play" is a whimsical reminder that sometimes you feel like a nut. Plus: holiday treats and many helpings of Christmas stuffing.

 “There is a basic emotional spectrum from which we cannot and should not escape, and I believe that depression is in that spectrum, located near not only grief but also love. Indeed I believe that all the strong emotions stand together, and that every one of them is contingent on what we commonly think of as its opposite.”

— from The Noonday Demon: an Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon

Melancholy Play, by the MacArthur Foundation fellow and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist Sarah Rurl, is in one sense an hilariously misnamed work. The overall tenor of the piece, far from dour or downbeat, is playful, verging on farcical, with absurdity within its reach. In fact, in its original iteration, circa 2001, it was titled Melancholy Play: a Contemporary Farce. A decade or so later, Ruhl revised the work to incorporate music — for string quartet and piano — by composer Todd Almond, calling for much of the dialogue to be sung, and calling for a new subtitle. This version, Melancholy Play: a Chamber Musical, is the next production from Third Rail Rep, opening Saturday at CoHo Theater.

Sadness never looked so fun: Sarah Ruhl’s Melancholy Play in a Third Rail Rep production at CoHo Theater. Photo: Owen Carey.

However, the play — the musical, whichever — is about melancholy. It concerns a woman named Tilly whose wistful, romantically melancholic affect is so alluring that the folks she encounters — her therapist, her tailor, her hairdresser and so on — fall all over themselves falling in love with her. Until, surrounded by all that love, Tilly has what’s either a sudden recognition or a true transformation: She’s happy.

And, well, that doesn’t go over so well.

Perhaps you’ll consider this a spoiler, but the news is out there: One of Tilly’s admirers is so undone by the change that she, too, changes — into an almond. As the website  DCMetroTheaterArts wrote of a production back east: “Not a metaphorical almond, mind, but an actual small brown nut, carefully displayed on a delicate white pillow. (One review I saw of a college production quite seriously urged people with tree nut allergies not to attend the show).”

Absurdity reached, absurdity grasped.

And yet, this is Sarah Ruhl, in whose theatrical world whimsy counts almost as a tool of philosophical inquiry. Even more so than in such later, celebrated works as The Clean House and Dead Man’s Cell Phone, she’s being thoughtful in a goofy way.

“It’s an odd little concoction,” admits Rebecca Lingafelter, who directs the Third Rail production with what she describes as vaudevillian style of staging and an emphasis on what Ruhl calls the “sincere melodrama” of the piece. 

Lingafelter notes that Ruhl first wrote the play as a graduate student at Brown University — where fellow students and future Third Rail regulars Kerry Ryan and Darius Pierce were involved in its early development. (Ryan performed in it back then and will do so again for Third Rail.) “You can see a lot in it about how she grew later on, some of the styles and the themes that she’d develop,” Lingafelter says. “There’s a lot that she’s exploring and working out that in her later plays she’s simplified and focused in on. And there are some of the fundamentals of who she is as an artist. Something I like about her work is that it can only work in the theater; she understands that we’re in a place of poetry and metaphor. There’s a very theatrical quality to it all that can be really fun.”

Ruhl’s point here, the meaning behind the mad method, is to make a case for an out-of-fashion notion of melancholy, both differentiating it from the much-bemoaned modern ailment, depression, and extolling it as a special kind of emotional sensitivity. 

Tailor-made for love: Leah Yorkston and Nick Ferrucci in Melancholy Play. Photo: Owen Carey.

“Melancholy can be active, yearning, hopeful, nostalgic, sexy even, and offers the possibility of communing with others,” Ruhl wrote in a 2015 foreward to the script. “Melancholy makes us contemplate the inevitable passage of time — the transience of things — and in that sense, it’s not neurotic, but rather part of the human condition.”

Depression she describes as “hermetic, sealed off, inert, hopeless,” worthy of the eradication so many seek. But might we be, she wonders, “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”? Which suggests another question: What to do about those who’ve slipped from hopefully yearning to hermetically sealed? 

“The fundamental theme, for me,” Lingafelter says, “is that she thinks that community is an overlooked way to address isolation and loneliness, to keep people from slipping too far into depression.” 

In its nearly 500 pages about the history, manifestations and treatments of mood disorders, Solomon’s Noonday Demon doesn’t say just where melancholy lands on humanity’s “basic emotional spectrum.” But on its final page, Solomon writes, “The opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality.”

By which reckoning Ruhl’s Melancholy Play might serve as a grinning middle ground.
 

The flattened stage (Thanks-taking edition)

Thanksgiving is a time of tradition. And for me, there is no tradition more hallowed at this time of year than watching my favorite video clip of the Apple Sisters.
I fell in love with the Apple Sisters in 2008, when the trio performed in the Best of the Best Sketch Fest, which I reviewed for The Oregonian: “Like a crisp, sweet McIntosh with a razor inside, the act is a 1940s radio variety show that revels in its homespun innocence (‘Heck’s bells!,’ one of the sisters exclaims) and cornpone humor (Seedy Apple: ‘You’re so dumb.’ Lusty, busty blonde Cora Apple: ‘I ain’t dumb! I can hear just fine!’), but sneaks in shards of political and sexual commentary. Facing the prospect of joining the war effort, Seedy remarks, ‘We know that war isn’t all raindrops on roses and whites-only drinking fountains.’ And then there are the references to Candy Apple’s mysterious husband, Cheryl (‘It’s not like I’m hiding Cheryl in a closet,’ Candy says.)”

Yet somehow that review neglected to mention their greatest bit, an incisive and hilarious pocket history of North American (re)settlement, “Pilgrim/Indian Song.” 

Opening (Brutal Xmas Onslaught Edition)

A cozy “Carol”: Portland Playhouse has filled houses and warmed hearts for the past several years with its production of “A Christmas Carol.” Photo: courtesy of Portland Playhouse.

In the early years of Portland Playhouse, artistic director Brian Weaver was the serious-minded sort who didn’t take the rote route of programming a Christmas-themed show at the end of the year. But his brother Michael (or, as I like to call him, Weaver the Younger) argued that there was nothing wrong with giving the people what they like. Eventually Weaver the Elder was won over, and scheduled a production of the most obvious choice possible, Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. Directed that first time by Cristi Miles, it was a huge hit, boasting such a fidelity to Dickensian virtues that audiences talked of seeing the old familiar play anew. These days, Weaver the Elder  directs the show — an adaptation by Rick Lombardo, with songs by Lombardo and Anna Lackaff — himself, and year after year it’s a reliable seasonal treat. And really, with such performing talents as Michael Mendelson as Scrooge and Ben Tissell as Bob Cratchit, how could it be otherwise?

***

This Carol, of course, is known for having multiple personalities. For instance, A Xmas Cuento Remix at Milagro, in which playwright Maya Malán-González gives A Christmas Carol a modern Latinx twist. In this version — which has productions this season in Portland, Cleveland and Chicago as part of the National New Play Network’s Rolling World Premiere program — hip, shapeshifting carolers serve as a mythic chorus, performing remixed Spanish and English Christmas songs, guiding the story and helping a woman named Dolores Avara to learn forgiveness and embrace holiday traditions. Triangle Productions, by contrast, gives the story a bawdy, Victorian music hall treatment, via Scrooge in Rouge, a spoof in which an outbreak of food poisoning reduces the available cast to just three hearty/hardy/foolhardy folk. The resulting requisite crossdressing, quick-change approach should be a comedic blank check for Dave Cole, Jeremy Anderson-Sloan and the always-vibrant Cassi Q. Kohl. (Stumptown Stages also has a more determinedly musical adaptation coming up, but that won’t open until Dec. 5.) 

***

If Dickens is an example of the culturally specific elbowing its way into universality, then maybe Black Nativity is on its way there too. Langston Hughes’ spirited re-telling of the Christian nativity story though black gospel singing and “traditional” Christmas carols has both a strong character and a broad appeal — enough so that PassinArt will present the show for a fifth consecutive year.

***

Around this time last year, critic-turned-playwright John Longenbaugh — whose Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Carol did well for Artists Rep earlier this decade — presented a one-night reading of his new play The Christmas Case: A Lady Brass Mystery. Now he’s back at the Chapel Theatre in Milwaukie with a full production of the story, about a lady detective and her daughter whose quiet country-house Christmas Eve turns instead into the mystery and intrigue of a jewel heist.

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Fred Bishop (left) and Jennifer Goldsmith star in It Happened One Christmas, a new holiday musical revue from Broadway Rose. Photo: Sam Ortega.

“Grimbles” sounds like a blend of “Gimbels,” the famed but now-defunct department-store company, and “grumble,” which you might be inclined to do if forced to be in a department store during December. In any case, it’s the name of the store that’s the setting for the story of It Happened One Christmas, a new original musical by Broadway Rose stalwarts Dan Murphy and Rick Lewis. As a cleaning lady and a security guard make their nightly rounds, the magic of Christmas Eve begins to take effect. The too-seldom-seen Jennifer Goldsmith stars as Frances, the cleaner, alongside Fred Bishop as Walter the guard.

***

The distinguishing feature of The Hullabaloo! Alice in Wonderland, British-panto-styled offering from the company known as Jane — or at least one thing that makes it stand out — is the price. Tickets are free. (I sometimes think that Portland citizenship should be contingent on whether someone knows who popularized the phrase “Free is a very good price!”) But there’ll be no citizenship tests for these freebies, just email info@janetheater.org to reserve yours.

Closing

One of my favorite lines from one of my favorite bands is the observation in a Husker Du song: “Expectation only means you really think you know what’s coming next — and you don’t.”
So I won’t pretend to really think I know quite what’s coming to the Performance Works NorthWest under the title Funeral for Expectations. Glancing at an email from the show’s creator/performer Julia Brandenberger, I first noticed the phrase “immersive and participatory ceremony of disposition,” and thought, “They’re going to bury the audience?!?”

Er…maybe not. Brandenberger, whose training is in ballet and theology, instead intends to put to rest such things as “struggles with body…toxic judgements and the stresses of achievement culture and perfectionism.”

***

La Ruta, Artists Rep’s powerful production of Isaac Gomez’ play about mothers and daughters and the harrowing experiences of those working along the U.S./Mexico border, closes its run on Sunday.

Second-hand news (theater journalism worth reading)

Long ago, early in my time as an arts journalist, I walked into a rock club one night and a friend of mine approached me. “Have you been feeling OK lately,” she asked. “Fine. Why do you ask?,” I replied. “You haven’t been mean to anyone in your column the past few weeks,” she said.
What she meant was that she liked, and missed, the barbed comments I slung at bands I didn’t like. But I found the exchange disheartening. Granted, it was fun to be snarky. My favorite line of mine from that era came as a brief mention of a laughable hair-metal band called Rex and the Rock-Its: “If the worst thing a critic can do to a band is to ignore it entirely, why am I being so nice?” Yet I didn’t I want to be seen as being mean, and I believed that writing criticism was about much more than taking pot shots — or even really about passing judgment.

That incident came to mind while reading recently about the death of John Simon, long a notoriously negative critic for New York Magazine, famous for both his erudition and his viciousness.
As a general matter, criticism has become a toothless monster since Simon’s late-20th-century heyday. But his passing presents an opportunity to consider what criticism can and should — or shouldn’t — do. 

In the obituary at Vulture, New York mag’s culture website, Christopher Bonanos, one of Simon’s later editors, outlines how sharp and colorful Simon’s writing could be, and how egregiously he could stray outside the lines of fair play. Bonanos also closes his piece on an especially apt note: “I don’t think it’s cruel to say this, because John himself would undoubtedly have turned it into a gleeful anecdote: When he had the stroke that killed him, he was at a local dinner theater. Hell of a review.”
American Theatre magazine chipped in with twinned commentaries, one by Michael Feingold, a former critic for the Village Voice, and one by Jack O’Brien, former artistic director of the Old Globe Theatre.

Interestingly, it’s the fellow critic who registers disappointment and disapproval, while the theater artist presents a case for the defense.

The best line I read this week

“Love is the last and secret name of all the virtues.”

— from A Fairly Honourable Defeat by Iris Murdoch


It’s Thanksgiving, so I’ll give thanks for Barry Johnson, one of the Northwest’s very finest thinkers and writers about the arts, for creating Oregon ArtsWatch and providing a chance for a former daily-paper hack like me to keep writing.

That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

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