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Sometimes you feel like a nut – ‘Melancholy Play’

October 20, 2022
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Sometimes you feel like a nut – ‘Melancholy Play’ (photo courtesy UMaine School of Performing Arts/Adam Kuykendall)

ORONO – You don’t have to be nuts to enjoy the latest theatrical offering from the University of Maine’s School of Performing Arts – but it helps. And if you are, you’ll have some company.

UMaine’s theatre department opens its season with a production of “Melancholy Play” by Sarah Ruhl. Directed by Rosalie Purvis, this gleefully strange farce runs through October 22 at Hauck Auditorium on the University of Maine campus in Orono. For more information, you can visit the SPA website here.

The play is an exploration of the complexities of emotion, of how the way we feel can impact not just ourselves, but the people around us. It’s a look at the delicacy of interpersonal dynamics and the manner in which those dynamics can shift and evolve as the ties that bind us grow tighter or looser … or just plain weirder.

It is also wildly funny, packed with absurdities that only accentuate the paean to emotionality that rests at its core. All of this brought to vivid, surreal life by a passionate young cast whose talent is second only to their fearlessness.

Tilly (Courtney Harding) is a young woman living a bit of an aimless life. She works at a bank and finds herself dealing with an onset of melancholy. But not just any old melancholy – this is a melancholy of such exquisiteness that it captures the attentions of the people around her. Her sweet sadness is positively gravitational, drawing people in and locking them into orbit around her.

There’s Frank (Elijah D’Aran), an accountant-turned-tailor, who is drawn in by Tilly’s emotional state and becomes romantically fascinated – all while hemming her pants. There’s Lorenzo (Martin Guarnieri), a brazenly over-the-top and vaguely European therapist who – despite proudly proclaiming a lack of emotion – also becomes infatuated with Tilly in the course of their sessions together. There’s Frances (Olivia West), former physicist who became a hairdresser and falls for Tilly while giving her a haircut. And there’s Joan (Clare Capuzzi), a nurse and Frances’s roommate, whose initial jealousy gives way to understanding when she meets Tilly and sees what the fuss is all about.

And there, in the center of it all, is Tilly. It is her melancholic state that draws these people in and sets their worlds spinning. But what happens when Tilly cheers up? What happens when she snaps out of her profound status? What happens when she is … happy?

Rather a lot, truth be told. Emotional ebbs and flows, rife with love triangles and quadrangles and pentangles. Conceptual conversations, ideas and ideologies set forth. Oh, and someone may or may not be transformed (or transform themselves) into an almond.

Why an almond? You’ll have to see the play to find out.

I’ve long been a huge proponent of the value of academic theatre, and productions like “Melancholy Play” are a perfect example as to why. This is a piece that offers up very particular challenges, both in terms of perspective and performance. Seeing those challenges addressed and embraced onstage is a viscerally joyful experience, one in keeping with the emotional underpinnings of the play’s wayward narrative.

That term “wayward” isn’t a criticism, by the way. Far from it. The meandering nature of the plot only serves to underscore the overall delight of the experience. In so many ways, “Melancholy Play” operates on its own frequency – it’s vibes all the way down. Again, that’s not to imply that the piece lacks in story coherence – it doesn’t – but rather that it isn’t beholden to that story. Instead, it skims across the narrative waters, a skipping stone of genuine emotion and surrealistic freneticism.

Of course, this kind of freedom could easily devolve into utter chaos. Director Rosalie Purvis seems to have managed things with a gentle, but firm hand. With the help of assistant director Bell Gellis Morais and dramaturg Alissa Halloway, Purvis navigates the proceedings deftly; there’s a crackling energy to the performances, but even in the most frantic moments, there’s a clarity of structure serving as a foundation. No matter how high into the clouds one gets, a connection to the ground is maintained. It’s that connection that lets this production soar.

And oh, how this ensemble takes flight. Harding plays Tilly with an intriguing mildness and an air of quiet bemusement. Finding happiness in melancholy might sound counterintuitive, but Harding’s understated demeanor and wide-eyed naivete makes it work. D’Aran’s Frank is an intellectual romantic; we get a real sense of just how trapped in his own head he is. Guarnieri is lunacy incarnate as Lorenzo; it’s a broad and bold cartoon of a performance, one that digs down into the farcical nature of the piece while still finding moments of real connection. In West’s hands, Frances – who could have been a caricature – represents the power (and the danger) that comes with falling in love; in many ways, she’s the play’s anchoring force. And Capuzzi – who does double duty, crafting some lovely choreography – illustrates the passionate immediacy of the convert and embodies a fascinating zealotry of adoration.

The bold choices of the production design reflect the boldness of the piece and performers. The stage at Hauck has been converted into a three-quarter thrust of sorts. Dan Bilodeau’s scenic design is fractured and functional, skewed in such a manner as to help the physical space reflect the off-kilter nature of the narrative. JP Sedlock’s lights are selective in their illumination, leaning into colors to craft mood and shape the space; you know it’s working when the shadows are as impactful as the spots. Alexis Foster’s costumes are as freewheeling as the rest of the proceedings; they look fantastic while also serving as reflections of their wearers. These aren’t just clothes.

As I said before, it’s productions like this one that remind me of why I love academic theatre so much. “Melancholy Play” is well-suited to this environment, a piece that delves into the strength of emotions still being thoroughly explored by younger people. It invites flexibility and freedom. And that sense of freedom permeates the entire production, infecting cast, crew and audience alike with an almost anarchic joy.

An Almond Joy, if you will.

(I’ll see myself out.)

Last modified on Friday, 21 October 2022 11:04

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