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Theatre in Review: One Discordant Violin (59E59)

Jacques Mindreau, Anthony Black. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Coming on the heels of The Sound Inside now on Broadway, One Discordant Violin suggests that we are in for a new wave of plays about the problems of writers. Speaking as one myself, I don't find the topic too interesting.

The Sound Inside, you may recall, is about a cancer-stricken creative-writing professor at Yale and her enigmatic star pupil, who, with little or no experience, spins expertly creepy stories in the tradition of Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley thrillers. It's not giving away too much to note that the teacher -- pupil relationship has life-or-death implications. Like The Sound Inside, One Discordant Violin has a markedly arty style and a certain carelessness about verisimilitude. In contrast, it offers a distinctly lower set of stakes.

One's heart may start to sink during the opening passage of One Discordant Violin, which features the unnamed narrator standing upstage behind a scrim panel, bathed in saturated sidelight and talking in hushed, anguished tones about Joseph Conrad's Almayer's Folly, a passage that competes, and loses, with the accompanying underscoring. Surely, one wonders nervously, the entire night won't be like this, will it? It's a relief when Anthony Black, who adapted the piece from a Yann Martel short story, steps downstage and addresses the audience in a relatively normal tone of voice.

But what follows is only marginally more compelling. The middle-aged Canadian narrator is looking back at the summer of 2001, just before 9/11, when he visited a friend in Washington, DC. In his early twenties, he is already drifting, as he struggles to write something -- anything, really. "I was obsessed with the way that the correct selection and arrangement of words could create whole worlds," he says. "Convey feelings. Capture beauty. I marveled at how the great writers seemed to express their time and place so definitively. I wondered what time and place I was supposed to define." At which point, my reflexive response was, Well, if you don't know....

Our narrator strains to express his ambivalence in the most literary way. Contemplating possible careers in digital technology or the law, he asks himself, "Into what oyster will I put my grain of sand?" In a later passage, showing off his love of prose, he picks apart a sentence from "Almayer's Folly," raving about -- wait for it -- its use of semi-colons. "The punctuation of this sentence is deliberate, forceful and dynamic," he rhapsodizes. "It is the punctuation of a true master." I have spent several decades with writers of all types, and I have yet to hear anyone talk like this.

Anyway, walking around DC, he stumbles into a crumbling theatre, partly obscured by a barber shop, where he finds "The Maryland Vietnam War Veterans' Baroque Chamber Ensemble" presenting a program of works by Albinoni, Bach, Telemann, "and the world premiere of The Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by John Morton." Creeped out by the decaying venue -- "I feel like I'm in a David Lynch movie," he says - and those in attendance (many of them physically maimed), he sticks around, only to be ravished to the core by the Rankin piece, even though it is poorly played, in a performance that is rudely broken off before its conclusion.

Shattered by the experience, the young man staggers out to the street, following Morton to the bank where he works as a cleaner at night. Surprisingly, Morton, a broken alcoholic, lets him into his workplace, gives him a cleaning rag, and makes clear how he and his musical colleagues were essentially destroyed by their wartime experiences in Vietnam. The young man's response, happily left unspoken, is, "Mr. Morton, I would take all the addiction, the loneliness, and depression in the world in exchange for creating something so beautiful."

This moment lays bare the trouble with One Discordant Violin, which consists of reality filtered through the mind of someone who has read far too much pretentious prose. Wandering through the theatre, he discovers broken statuary everywhere, beginning with a smashed head of Athena, "Goddess of Wisdom." He adds, "The other remains are anonymous Greek emblems of male and female physical perfection, beautiful faces, hands, limbs, and torsos smashed and severed on the ground. I turn Athena's head my way. Her gaze, intended as blank, is now tragically stoic. I stare blankly back." I'll bet he does.

Later, at the bank, Morton opens a number of employees' desk drawers, pulling out the tampons kept there. "These things are the only sign of life in this place," he says. "I see one of them and I think, Blood . . . sex . . . children . . . love. Everything else here is dead. Dead and bloodless." Who knew a that a feminine hygiene product could hold such a cornucopia of symbols?

Then again, everything in One Discordant Violin is a signifier; for all I know, it is drawn from a totally true set of experiences, but, as represented here, it comes off as a set of carefully arranged writerly details, all designed to spotlight the author's sensitivity and delicacy of perception. At the point that Black began to get all choked up, the sob in his throat left me thinking about the old theatrical adage that when actors cry, the audience's eyes remain dry.

Black, who codirected the piece with Ann-Marie Kerr and also designed the set, has encouraged the rest of the creative team to pile on the effects. Nick Bottomley's projection design includes many scrolling pieces of text and a montage of 1960s people and events. The lighting, by Bottomley and Anna Shepard, is loaded with stark angles and supersaturated hues, often leaving the action onstage hard to make out. Aaron Collier is credited with "live sound design," a slightly odd term that, I assume, refers to the miking of Black and the violin performance and vocals of Jacques Mindreau, whose rendition of several classical selections provides the evening with its surest source of pleasure. (Mindreau and Collier also wrote the original music featured in the piece.)

But the abundance of great music can't save One Discordant Violin from being a studied display of tremulous, and seemingly self-adoring, emotionalism. The piece climaxes with the narrator dipping into his faded notebook to describe the soaring beauty of the music, its purposeful use of the discordant violin, and its failed execution -- which somehow, he insists, makes it all the more meaningful. In a way, he is a skillful writer; it's almost breathtaking to see how he takes these desperate, functionally destroyed people struggling to scratch out a smidgen of beauty and makes it all about him. --David Barbour

(5 November 2019)

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