A play is an odd artistic creature that inhabits three time zones simultaneously: The time it was conceived and written, the period in which it is set, and finally, any time that it is performed. These zones can overlap, though not necessarily.
Alessandro Baricco’s play Novecento (translated by Ann Goldstein) is set in the early 20th century. It first appeared as a short story in the 1990s and was first performed in 2010 in London. But for Gallery Theater in McMinnville, it’s that final temporal plane that lends this short, single-actor piece an outsized significance that will not be lost on the audience and is definitely on the mind of the performer. It will be the first live theater on Gallery’s main stage since it went dark in March 2020.
“I am very aware of how utterly lucky I am to even have this opportunity,” actor Lance Nuttman told me earlier this month. “To be able to return to the stage is what every single creative wants right now. The gravity of how important this return is to all of us is not lost on me for a moment.”
Gallery opens the nine-show run Friday, May 28, and continues it through June 13. The play was on the schedule before, but set in the theater’s black box studio. It’s moved to the main stage so a limited, masked audience can be spread out safely.
The McMinnville theater’s Novecento exemplifies the artistic cross-pollination common to the Willamette Valley’s theater community. A few years ago, Randall Tosh, artistic director of The Verona Studio in Salem, approached theater veteran Ed Schoaps, who has made Pentacle Theatre across the river his home base since the mid-1970s, with the script and asked him to direct.
“When I read it, I immediately thought of Lance,” Schoaps told me. “I called Randall and I said, ‘OK, I’m interested in doing the show, but I have someone in mind to play this part.’ He said, ‘Is it Lance Nuttman?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, “I was thinking the same thing.’”
Nuttman performed Novecento at The Verona Studio in December 2017. I didn’t see it, but if you talk to those who did, you get the sense that you missed something special that wouldn’t be repeated. Except that it will be, thanks to Nuttman’s close ties with Gallery, where he’s been a regular in plays and musicals since 2011. There, he’s appeared as Curly in Oklahoma!, the Chairman in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and (alongside Schoaps, who was brought in two days before opening to reprise the role of Big Daddy he’d played at Pentacle) Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He has also appeared in Pentacle productions.
Nuttman’s turn in Gallery’s 2018 production of The God Game (directed by his wife, Marla) is worth citing here, because the play includes a scene that seems relevant alongside Novecento. He played a moderate Republican politician being vetted for the VP spot by a more conservative candidate. The play ends with a press conference with Nuttman standing dead center flanked by his character’s wife and gay best friend. With a great deal of suspense over what he will say, his speech made for several minutes of thrilling theater. So the idea of Nuttman holding court solo for 90 minutes is an enticing prospect.
In Novecento, he plays trumpeter Tim Tooney, who tells the strange tale of Novecento, a gifted but mysterious pianist who spends his life entertaining one audience after another aboard the Virginian, an ocean liner. “He really was the greatest,” Tooney claims in the first few pages. “We played music, he was something different. He played — what he played didn’t exist before, OK? It wasn’t anywhere. And when he got up from the piano it wasn’t there anymore … and it was never there again.”
“Really it’s some of the finest work he’s ever done,” Schoaps said of Nuttman’s performance. “He embodies this character with such love and care. He takes enormous risks on stage as an actor to bring the emotional content along with the comedy and a heart-touching story. I’m just really super happy that he’s back again to do this role.”
Aside from the obvious, episodic narrative that makes for a whale of a tale, Novecento is something of a theatrical Rorschach test; ask anyone familiar with it what it’s “about,” and you’ll get a variety of responses. In working with the script at home, Nuttman said his wife (and artistic collaborator; she’s on the crew for this one and they work closely on all productions) was struck by the idea of telling a story about a character whose entire life is basically quarantine-by-choice as we all emerge from a pandemic that found most of us quarantined out of necessity.
“How do you do that, how do you make that choice?” said Schoaps, when asked for his take. “I don’t know too many people who would do that. But then you know, it’s pretty obvious that there are people in this country who only venture a few miles from their home their entire lives. But this show is not about isolation, it’s about connection.”
Having read the play through once, I’d venture that Novecento is about the mystery and magic of art and the truly gifted artist, regardless of the medium — and how we, as the audience, can never truly know how the magic works in that artist, the nature of inspiration. Tooney unfurls one rollicking episode where Novecento finds himself in a piano-playing contest, and the way it goes down raises the question, Why in the world would he choose that song? It’s a question one might ask about anything the artist does. Why did Monet paint that river? Why those notes in Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, and what was he feeling when he conceived of it in the first place? You’ll never know; the artist might not even be able to articulate it — except through the art.
So, the COVID stuff: Gallery has made it clear that company and audience safety is a top priority, going so far as to write detailed, in-house protocols for anyone involved in a production. The audience will be spread out. Temperatures will be taken upon arrival, and masks will be required — masks, not bandannas. Concessions won’t be available, but the restrooms will be open and monitored to limit occupancy. You can learn more about COVID protocols, ticket prices, and the rest of Gallery’s 2021 season here.
SPEAKING OF THEATER: Salem’s storied Elsinore Theatre will celebrate its 95th anniversary Wednesday, May 26. The virtual event will include entertainment and an auction to raise money for what organizers term critical repairs and equipment replacement, and helping the theater survive current closure due to COVID-19. The auction will include a variety of experiential items, including a two-night stay at Bjornson Vineyard, a dinner party for up to 20 with live music by Portland musician Beth Willis, and a tour of The Brothers Collection, a private collection of vintage and classic vehicles in a museum-like environs. There’s no cost to participate, and you can watch it live on the website (where you can also register for the auction or just make a donation) starting at 6 p.m.