Theater Review: Melancholy Play at Trinity Rep

Wednesday, June 10, 2015


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Charlie Thurston as Frank and Rachael Warren as Tilly in Melancholy Play: a chamber musical by Sarah Ruhl and Todd Almond at Trinity Rep. Photo Mark Turek.

In "Melancholy Play: a chamber musical" McArthur Fellow Sarah Ruhl gives words to the unspoken deep sadnesses that creep into our lives during small moments.  And she does so in the most exuberant and enjoyable way.  The two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and Tony Award nominee (best new play - "In the Next Room, or the vibrator play") presents a story that is at once funny, absurd, sensual and heartfelt.  Make no mistake, “Melancholy” is a blast.

This Trinity Repertory production is a world premiere for “Melancholy Play” as a musical.  It’s hard to imagine it without the composer Todd Almond’s music (no surprise he’s returning to the Public Theater in NYC with his original musical adaptation of The Winter’s Tale this September, created with and directed by Lear DeBessonet).  His collaboration here with Ruhl allows for an easier acceptance of the elements of farce and high comedy which might otherwise be jarring.  Transitions between song and spoken word occur so organically that it almost seems strange to imagine the characters not singing.

Liesl Tommy, a Trinity Repertory Conservatory Alum and Obie Award winner, directs this production with great balance to its varied textures.  Ruhl’s play speaks great truths, but Liesl’s interpretation never groans under the weight of them.  Just when things seems to be getting too heavy, the central character marches through the scene, twirling a baton with expertise, majorette hat and all.  It is unstoppable entertainment, no doubt, but it remains grounded.  This combined with the sparse set, an empty banquet hall after the party's over and everyone has gone (a perfect embodification of melancholy realized by set designer Clint Ramos), allows you to hang on every word and to appreciate the nuanced text.

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Mia Ellis as Jo an and Rachael Warren as Tilly in Melancholy Play: a chamber musical Photo Mark Turek.

It’s Tilly, played with full force by Rachael Warren, who delivers the lion’s share of those words.  A bank teller by profession, she bears fully the melancholia of the story.  She spouts rich emotional experiences of the everyday, inviting near strangers in as she repeatedly asks ‘have you ever felt...’ or ‘have you ever thought...’ and each finds themselves ecstatically saying yes! Her bank-ordered therapist, her tailor, her hairdresser, even her hairdresser's partner (played by Joe Wilson Jr., Charlie Thurston, Rebecca Gibel, and Mia Ellis, respectively) become instantly infatuated with her.  And as she draws them all into her world, as she finds love and connection, she begins to change. She becomes manically happy.  But now that she has allowed them all to openly feel what they feel, to revel in it, and to realize that she shares many of their most alienating experiences, how will the people close to her continue on bereft of her beautiful melancholy?

Yet despite all this talk of melancholy and suffering, whether she is low or high, Warren’s performance is energetic, enlivening, and physically impressive.  She clutches her therapist’s arm as they imagine themselves old men playing cards in an Italian piazza, rolls on the floor in a love embrace with the tailor, leaps ecstatically through the air at her newfound happiness and we leap with her. 

And that is the power of this production.  Just as Tilly pulls the strangers on stage out of their isolation, we the audience are drawn out as well.  We find ourselves connecting to the very same experiences that bind the characters we watch.  "Melancholy Play: a chamber musical" caps off Trinity Rep's "Necessity of Human Connection" season well.   As they left the premiere carrying with them Ruhl's words and the liveliness of the production, theatregoers young and old made eye contact, held smiles and shared in a connectedness that comes from a sense of belonging, because as Tilly say,’who cares if we're all nuts, as long as we're all nuts together.'

Melancholy Play: a chamber musical runs through June 28 2015. Trinity Repertory Company, 201 Washington Street. Box office: 401.351.4242;

Video Wall Photo by Mark Turek






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