ART's "Song of a Convalescent": Art As Open Heart Surgery

Michael Yates Crowley (as Tinky Holloway) in "Song of a Convalescent..."
(photo: ART) 

The title of ART's latest offering at their Oberon venue, “Song of a Convalescent Ayn Rand Giving Thanks to the Godhead (in the Lydian Mode)” doesn't exactly come trippingly off the tongue. Nonetheless, the performance piece created and performed by Wolf 359, in the persons of Michael Yates Crowley and Michael Rau, is an example of the meeting of several creative minds leading to some impressive verbal gymnastics. In addition to the genius of the two actors themselves, the production profits from historical input from the likes of such greats as Beethoven, Emily Dickinson and Ayn Rand herself, all in the pursuit of presenting the medical (and artistic) history of migraines. On the part of Crowley, it's a very personal search, as his diary shows in its meticulous chronicling of his own lifelong frequent bouts with intense headaches. After encountering the theory of pain as expressed by Rand (namely that it's imaginary), Crowley developed this piece consisting of a theme and twenty-four variations, about whether you can think your way out of pain. He suggests that you approach the work as though you were attending a concert of words, ideas and characters. It focuses on Rand and her seemingly deliberate silence about pain and the suffering it causes, insisting that it not be taken seriously. The same could be said about this production, which, tongues firmly in cheek, proceeds to tackle the subject via portrayals of the sublime (Beethoven) to the less so (Alan Greenspan, Maury Povich), a drag queen at an open mic session in a strip club in Peoria (“a stage is a stage”), a teenager on You Tube, various doctors who assure you won't be cured but it will still cost you, and a love scene from Rand's “Fountainhead” that climaxes (so to speak) in pain. All this in a rapid-fire ninety minutes.

The title, in case you were wondering (as you no doubt were) refers to an extraordinarily long movement in a Beethoven string quarter which uses an ancient tonality known as the Lydian mode. It was written by him in response to his apparent recovery from illness (which proved to be illusory) and his gratitude to God. Heard at the beginning of the show and repeated at the end, it bookends the process that Crowley experienced in confronting his pain from suffering from a scourge that is very little understood even after centuries of research. While this might sound a bit too dry and scholarly a topic, its presentation is anything but. Crowley is a master of understating and Rau is as dry and droll as they come. Written by Crowley (who also provided some of his own original music) and Directed by Rau, it starts out as (intentionally) rather amateurish and disheveled, but swiftly becomes more focused on their treatment of a condition that has no treatment, a disease with neither known cause nor cure. The technical contributions are all suitably minimalist, from the Scenic Design by Sara Walsh to the Costume Design by Valérie Thérèse Bart, the Lighting Design by Derek Wright, the Sound and Video Design by Asa Wember and the Music Direction by Josiah Reibstein.

As the aforementioned drag queen, Tinky Holloway by name, puts it, “life is depressing, but at least I wrote a song about it”, and even more tellingly describes her art as open heart surgery. It's not a show for everyone, especially those who aren't fans of performance art in general; this show might even give them a headache. But if you're open to a novel approach to an unusual subject, you might well find yourself amused, bemused, and provoked to thought. Again in the immortal words of the irrepressible Tinky Holloway, may we “all have long and rational lives”.

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