‘Melancholy’ cometh, draped in dolorous fun, as Grey Ghost Theatre bows with Ruhl’s play
Review: “Melancholy Play: A Contemporary Farce” by Sarah Ruhl in a presentation by Grey Ghost Theatre at the ViaDuct Theatre through May 13. ***
By Nancy Malitz
In “The Iceman Cometh,” now playing at the Goodman, everybody in the saloon is hooked on the high that traveling salesman Hickey gives them. Whenever he shows up, it’s feel-good yucks and free-flowing booze, until the downer day he arrives stone cold preachy and ruins the party for everybody.
There’s a nice little counterpart worth seeking out at the ViaDuct Theatre, the first production of Grey Ghost Theatre, a new storefront company that performs its inaugural showpiece until May 13 only.
In this topsy to Hickey’s turvy, it’s not happiness but enchanting sadness that Tilly, a beautiful bank teller, imparts. When she shows up, she elevates the common funk to dolorous heights so seductive, transporting and rarified — cue the cello — that only the Japanese have a word for it, or is it the Scandinavians?
This is Sarah Ruhl’s 2001 “Melancholy Play,” a gentle misery-loves-company fable of high wit.
It’s not really a spoiler to point out that when Tilly suddenly gets happy happy happy, she wrecks all chances for the I’m-not-OK-you’re-not-OK encounters of ecstasy these friends seek Tilly for.
But can a person turn into an almond? If you ask yourself that question at 3:30 a.m., or during a Ruhl play, the answer is always yes.
This lyrical and greatly gifted playwright was born in Wilmette and in the last six years has become internationally lauded. Her plays and stage adaptations have been taken up locally by Victory Gardens (“In the Next Room or the vibrator play”), Goodman (“Stage Kiss”), Lacuna Artist Loft Studios (“Eurydice”) and Court Theatre (“Orlando”) in recent months, and video clips from prominent national performances and interviews are all over the Internet.
But “Melancholy” is Ruhl’s first original play, and it reminds me most of the 2003 “Eurydice,” both written at a time when she was encouraging her audiences to plunge into vivid dreamlike realms where strange stuff happens.
What a nice touch that Grey Ghost Theatre has chosen Ruhl’s Opus 1 for its Opus 1.
ViaDuct’s black box space is appointed with confident spareness by Mollie Slattery, using little but curtains and empty picture frames to suggest the off-kilter world in which this disturbance of happiness occurs.
Grey Ghost Theatre founding member Amber Robinson directs this production for five able actors and a cellist with the character name of Julian, played here by the accomplished musician Jeremy David Ward.
Julian is largely unsketched by the playwright, but his unaccompanied music is clearly meant to express the soul’s exquisite sadness, so elusive a target for mere words. (One cannot imagine this play with a lesser musician in that role; Ward sets the mood and sustains it. The program credits the musical score, which includes some classical music, to Ben Hjertmann.)
Mouzam Makkar is luminous as Tilly, the siren of sorrow. Everyone else is smitten with her, including Frank, a very lithe tailor in the dumps, played by Grey Ghost founding member, filmmaker and improviser Andy Junk. Tilly’s other admirers are the humorous Peter Durkin as her talkative therapist Lorenzo, the pleasantly dithering Maggie McCally as her hairdresser Frances, and Mallory Nees as Joan, a nurse who loses all practicality as she surrenders latest and hardest to the swoon.
Their charming duets with Tilly are light and often hypnotic, characterized by short sentences, sometimes uttered simultaneously. Ruhl accomplishes something wonderful here, a sense of dislocation that alters perspective, as if one is watching from a distant star where even the most rational actions seem absurd in the cosmic expanse of space and time.
- Performance location, dates and times: Details at TheatreinChicago.com
- “Eurydice” appeared in a striking production at New York City’s Second Stage Theatre: View a clip at YouTube
Photo captions and credits: Home page and top: Mouzam Makkar as Tilly, a siren of sadness. Cast of sad sacks includes, from left Peter Durkin as Lorenzo the therapist, Mallory Nees as Joan the nurse, Mouzam Makkar as Tilly the bank teller, Andy Junk as Frank the tailor, and Maggie McCally as the hairdresser Frances. Headshot of playwright Sarah Ruhl. Tilly (Mouzam Makkar) bewitches the tailor Frank (Andy Junk). Below: Poster, Grey Ghost’s production of “Melancholy Play.” (Production photos by Alan Callaghan)