Melancholy Play Provides Funny, Lyrical Discussion of Sadness
The five actors in Sarah Ruhl’s Melancholy Play are all preoccupied with lost arts like a talent for melancholy and the carrying of handkerchiefs. Directed by College senior Zoë DePreta, Melancholy Play follows Tilly (College sophomore Paige Baskin), a bank teller who suffers from a depression that attracts everyone around her. This theme is one that DePreta found relevant to Oberlin’s culture.
“I think it’s good to do on a college campus because it talks about the way that people fetishize sadness, especially at a school where people are pretty open about discussing mental illness. This is a show that projects that,” DePreta said.
College junior Zoë Kushlefsky, who plays Joan in the show and also designed the set, agreed with DePreta about the show’s focus.
“It kind of comments on a lot of bullshit in movies and stuff that Oberlin students see through; the whole show is kind of calling out manic pixie dream girls and how male characters in those kinds of shows romanticize depression,” she said.
DePreta is no stranger to themes of sadness and poetry. Last year she devised a one-woman show with two other students, Anna Gelman, OC ’16, and Ariana Silvan-Grau, OC ’16, based on the life of Sylvia Plath, titled I Do It So It Feels Like Hell. This piece, which DePreta plans to continue developing after graduation, shows Plath as a woman who is more than her tragedy and infuses the serious nature of her famous works with some of her sillier and more whimsical qualities.
Melancholy Play features a similar balance of silly and serious moments. Ruhl’s simultaneously poetic and facial language was another draw for the cast and crew.
“I’ve never done anything like this before,” Baskin said. “I’ve done musicals, I’ve done a lot of classic straight plays and a lot of realist theater, but this show has very heightened dialogue and poetic language. It’s been exciting and also really challenging.”
Along with lyrical language, the show features a live music component. Double-degree senior Patrick Dunaj wrote original music for cello, performed by Conservatory first-year Julie Holzen, who sits stage left for the whole one-act show. Dunaj’s music accompanies the actors as they spontaneously burst into song during the play.
“There are a few different scores you can use, but I figured when in Oberlin, you can find a composition major to write you a beautiful score, which he did,” DePreta said.
Dunaj said he drew inspiration from the Bach cello suites, late 19th-century romantic music and ’60s film scores like those Bernard Herrmann composed for Alfred Hitchcock. While he tried to capture a sense of melodrama as well as melancholy, Dunaj took care not to upstage the actors with his composition.
“I don’t want [the audience] to be concentrating on the music. It should enhance what’s going on onstage. If you find yourself paying too much attention to the score, the composer’s done something wrong,” he said.
On the whole, Melancholy Play is anything but subtle. The characters are dramatic and there are several soap opera-style twists. In the usual style of black box theater, the sets are sparse, but the upholstered chaise longue and area rugs bring charm to an already charming script. The lighting is particularly creative, echoing the moods of the characters and the music, and adding dimension to the flat stage of Little Theater.
Those that are allergic to tree nuts should be warned: almonds are essentially the show’s seventh character. The nuts are used extensively and may come in close proximity to audience members; anyone whose allergy prevents them from being in the same space with tree nuts are asked not to attend the performances.
Melancholy Play, which opened yesterday as part of this year’s theater LabSeries and runs through Sunday, is a chance to revel in this lyrical and comical commentary on the idealization of unhappiness. It is a truly delightful play, and it is abundantly clear that the entire cast and crew enjoy one another’s company as much as Tilly and her friends do. Both the melancholy and the enchantment are contagious.
Melancholy Play is currently running at the Little Theater. Performances are at 8 p.m. tonight, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets cost $5.