Trinity Rep's "Melancholy Play": Almond Joy?

Charlie Thurston & Rachael Warren in "Melancholy Play"
(photo: Mark Turek)

Sometimes you feel like a nut; sometimes you don't. That may determine your response to “Melancholy Play: a chamber musical”, the final production in Trinity Rep's current season, a world premiere of a musical version of a play first written in 2002 by Sarah Ruhl. Now presented with a sung-through score by Todd Almond, played by a pianist and a string quartet of musicians and a small quintet of actors, on the simplest imaginable set, it's a roller coaster of a play. As Directed by Liesl Tommy, who describes this work as a “no-holds-barred farce”, with limited Choreography by Christopher Windom, it's performed in ninety intermission-less minutes. It's about Tilly (Rachael Warren), a melancholic bank teller with whom everyone falls in love. But all of them, from her therapist “Lorenzo the Unfeeling” (Joe Wilson, Jr.) to her boyfriend tailor Frank (Charlie Thurston), to her bank customer British nurse Joan (Mia Ellis), and her hairdresser Frances (Rebecca Gibel), have to adjust when she's “cured”. The central problem arises when Tilly's melancholy disappears. That was what attracted everyone to her in the first place; once she's happy, everyone finds the new and improved version of her irritating. Where one character opened with “a proposition: a defense of melancholy”, it's not long (although it seems long) before the excessive melancholia is replaced by excessive sunniness.

A common thread in much of Ruhl's work over the years (as in “The Clean House”, or “Dead Man's Cell Phone”) is how, as she puts it, very ordinary objects are used as metaphors for emotional responses, balancing empathy with abstraction. In this play, one character is transformed into an almond (no relation to the composer), which drives everyone else more generically nuts. (It might help here to note that the amygdala of our brains, shaped like an almond, controls our emotions). What begins as a rather repetitive exposition evolves into an amusingly bizarre piece of absurdist theater. The talented crew of five singing actors subsist in a sort of bipolar happy daze. The minimalist (and probably intentionally melancholic) Set Design is by Clint Ramos, with apt Costume Design by Jacob A. Climer, Lighting Design by Peter West, Sound Design by Broken Chord, and Musical Direction by Andrew Smithson. Almond's music, often lovely, is superbly played and sung throughout. It's in the book that this work sometimes disappoints, given Ruhl's track record. (For example, “I wish I could paint you...I can't paint” or the threat that one character makes: “I'm a-gonna drool all over you”).

As one of the characters puts it, “Is that weird? Yes, it is weird”. The play is undeniably and frequently pleasant; whether this sort of playfully zany work is up your alley is questionable, and it takes quite a while to get to its wacky destination. Once there, you might well agree with one of the more memorable lines voiced by one of the players: “We don't care if we're all nuts”.

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