WORDS / MARTY SHUTTER
TheaterSquared’s eighth season begins with a homespun world premier, The Spiritualist. Written by the company’s artistic director Robert Ford, he says, “in a way I’ve been writing this play for 18 years.” Amy Herzberg, who plays Rosemary Dunn, found this book by this woman called Unfinished Symphonies. She nudged Robert and told him, “[T]his would make a great play, and the actress probably is gonna have to be able to play the piano pretty well, and I happen to know an actress that can play the piano pretty well, so uh, write the play.” He added, “She was pretty destined to play this role.”
Her character, Rosemary, is a self proclaimed “ordinary woman” with an interest in the paranormal. Her life is tidy, English, 60’s, and in every other respect she actually is quite normal. She lives in a modest home in East London, modeled onstage in a set that looks expertly peeled from a fifty-year old Marshall Field’s catalogue. What sets Dunn apart began when she was visited by the spirit of the classical composer, Franz Liszt, played by Steven Marzolf, at the age of 7. Discovering her knack for melody, the two began a project of finishing symphonies through her. The play begins after some absence from composing when a melody drifts through the home and her mind.
The play centers on Dunn and is a revolver of motivations, each hitting her in some different way. Reluctant to even play for the dead greats, she is pushed by them from the afterlife and pulled in this life by industry and fame, enshrined in the character of Peter Clifton played by Kristopher M. Stoker. For Clifton, it is “all about selling records.”
The public is appeased through the press and here it is represented in a reporter from the Chicago Tribune, who according to Ford was, “the character that I gave the most, that I had to actually work out because I wanted to understand why he was pursuing this woman. As simple as she is, you know, lady in London, but there’s something there that is pure and hopeful and idealistic, and that is what you are drawn to.”
The public imagines incredible new collaborations from beyond the grave and Dunn communicates freely with spirits in her home and at the park. Beethoven (John T. Smith) storms and rages through the modest living room paranoid from beyond the grave. Smith also plays the host of a cheeky popular English program, regularly featuring a famed music critic played by Kathy Logelin. Her ingrained skepticism serves as a reminder of society at large’s doubt about Rosemary’s abilities. Logelin triples as German composer Clara Schumann offering Rosemary a chance to commune with the spirit of a female and afterwards is profoundly affected.
The language of the play is at times beautiful — ‘the ground is holding it’s breath’ — and at times hilariously indicting of molded culture — “you have no interest in the fantastic!”
Another character, made of dead wood, brass strings and ivory tusk is a piano, downstage left. It is where Dunn works, communes, learns and is free to experience her ecstasy. A moment in the play finds a lonely Beethoven hearing this piano for the first time. Director Kevin Christopher Fox has delicately crafted moments of Ford’s script to send chills through the room or by raising the temperature of the entire audience by upping the beat. From Rosemary’s piano, music emanates and punctuates the script giving the whole play a delightful and subtly tragic undertone.
The play lives in a very fun place, punctuated by very real sadness and truth. I ask Robert what he is most proud of with The Spiritualist. He says, “First of all I’m incredibly proud of Amy and the performance that she gives, and the journey she takes that character on and the amount of heart that she shows us. Incredibly proud of that. As a writer, as a playwright, I am most proud of the complexity of the play. You know Beethoven was known for in one piece having incredible darkness and incredible light, like shafts of light and darkness right next to each other and Shakespeare does these amazing things like the gravedigger scene in Hamlet like this really you know, very very funny stuff embedded in something that is incredibly heedy. And I love that kind of stuff, and I think one of the things I’m proud of in this play is that it seems to live in a very, a light place, and occasionally a really very funny place, but you know thematically it’s really pretty serious and it’s talking about some serious things and I like that it contains all of that.
“I’m still not completely sure, but I think that this play might be about finding your own voice and about what makes life meaningful, and coming up with my own answer to that which is that being in touch with your real life and being able to connect to and become intimate with other people is what life is about, it’s not about some great, even totally beautiful altruistic crusade, that ultimate happiness is gonna be based on the connections you’re able to make with those – kind of love connections – you’re able to make. That is the argument of this play.”
I ask Ford about TheaterSquared’s ambitious eighth season. “It’s kind of like standing on a mountain, and you can’t really see over the edge. I would love to be able to see how high up we are, cause I’m aware that we’ve reached season 8, we’re producing at I think a really high level, we are being really really ambitious in terms of the titles we’re picking, the size of the shows and the cast sizes the idea of doing, asking our subscribers to subscribe to a season that has a world premier in it and two very new plays and kind of getting away with it, of course which is all a testament to our greater community here, but all of it is kind of a little bit unbelievable, because I can’t find the place to look over the mountain and look way down and go, woah this really is happening, it’s basically just a whole hell of a lot of work. Ok, look at that slope we just came up, and oh there’s more!? Let’s just keep going…”
He continues, “I think it is an amazing season, we are really excited about doing Hamlet, which is way outside our comfort zone in some ways, but we’re going to do the Theater Squared Hamlet. We’re going to do the Hamlet that expresses our belief in intimate, emotional, truthful theater that really touches people and cuts through the bullshit. And then we’ve got these plays 4000 Miles and Good People, from our vantage point, are the two best plays that were out there when we were looking. They are amazing plays. 4000 miles is kind of a quiet play, Good People has this crackling dramatic way. They say really important things. And then [Dickens’] Christmas Carol is a gift, I hope, to all of us, just a gorgeous piece of work, so we’re excited about the pieces and we’re just continuing to do the hard work.”
Rosemary in the play, feels overwhelmingly ordinary and unaccomplished, yet has somehow produced over 200 new compositions in a very short time. I ask about that greater question of working, working, working, “You, with a theater clicking into overdrive, producing so much, outpacing reflection,… speak to that, and contrast to anyone who might be feeling a little too ordinary.”
He says, “What I’ve learned, if someone when I was twenty had said to me, you probably can do it. If you have a lot of ability, chances are you’ll do pretty well, but I’ll tell you, it’s a factor of working over a long period of time, a lot. At the time, you’re like oh I lost this competition, I was supposed to be able to get this competition and everything would happen, which is what you hope for when you’re a kid. And in very few cases that happens, for the rest of us it’s just keep sloggin’ away man, at your passion, and by the time you’re forty five or fifty you’ll look back and say, holy cow, look at all this shit that I’ve done!”
The Spiritualist runs through next Sunday (Sept. 15). For a transcript of Marty’s interview with Robert Ford, return to The Idle Class soon.
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