Thursday, May 5, 2011

Carson McCullers Talks about Love

Carson McCullers Talks About Love, a meditation with song about McCullers's relationships with writing, men, women, and illness, opens tonight at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Renowned for her decades of excellent storytelling through song, creator and star Suzanne Vega doesn't have much acting experience. But she has an affinity for McCullers and a similar gift with words, in addition to a strong physical resemblance. I thought she was great as both the writer in the past and as herself now commenting on her own history with McCullers's writing.

As a longtime fan of both women, I cannot be an objective observer here. I know this show isn't perfect, but it's so well crafted around its imperfections that I have absolutely no complaints about it except that I won't be able to see it again. Bringing in Duncan Sheik to help with some of the music was an excellent move. After all, he won two Tonys for Spring Awakening's music and orchestrations and has a few other musicals in the works. (The concept recording of Whisper House is stunning. The staged reading at Powerhouse a couple of summers ago was very promising, and a full production at the Old Globe in San Diego followed.) Sheik's style meshes well with Vega's, and he adds some layers to her usually sparse arrangements. I'd love to hear the show in its final form. If they released a cast recording I would wear. it. out.

Under Kay Matschullat's direction, the production does much to highlight Vega's strengths and shrug off her amateur status. Although the show was still in flux when I saw it, and Vega used a lyrics sheet for one of the two new songs and hummed through a few forgotten lines of another, it didn't affect my enjoyment a bit. She and Joe Iconis, a locally well-known musical theater writer, seem to have an easy, trusting rapport. As her piano man and witty sidekick, he's a great addition to what is essentially a one-woman show plus two onstage musicians. When Vega tripped up in a monologue, Iconis gracefully pulled the show back on track with such humor and natural timing that I wondered if it isn't even more enjoyable when things don't go exactly as planned.

Had I realized at the time how close the theater is to the Stonewall Inn, I would have swung by. I think the Carson McCullers of this time-shifting production would have approved. A comment from Iconis about the Stonewall riot as a flashpoint in the fight for gay rights--led by outcasts even within the gay community, the kind of misfits McCullers loved to study--would have fit right in stylistically and thematically, especially given her complex romantic history. (I wonder if Iconis will mention during the show that, like McCullers, Marie Osmond just remarried her first husband.)*

*At the performance I saw, he somewhat randomly brought up Martin McDonagh, modern playwright of the gruesomely hilarious. I was disappointed that my two companions and I were the only ones in the audience who seemed to find it hysterical. Still, it was a bit odd and didn't really belong in the show, and I didn't really want to encourage it, but I love McDonagh and the comment itself was apt, so I laughed. Really loudly.

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