I had the fortune this past weekend to attend two remarkable cultural events within 18 hours of each other. First was the Fresno Philharmonic’s “Witness and Rebirth” concert, which featured a world premiere of a piece commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide.
And then the next afternoon came StageWorks Fresno’s beautifully evocative “The Music Lesson,” a drama by Tammy Ryan built on the atrocities of the 1990s Bosnian War.
Both experiences were about war and music. Both offered stark examples of the depths to which human depravity can sink. Both featured live musicians on stage.
Most important, both washed over me with an overwhelming message of reconciliation and hope. They reminded me that music has the power to transcend evil. As humanity’s only true universal language, it is as vital to our well being as bread and water (as one character in “The Music Lesson” so eloquently puts it).
Other theater companies in Fresno have struggled with how to use the Fresno Art Museum’s snug Bonner Auditorium, which has no wing space and is essentially a venue for lectures and small concerts. But not StageWorks director J. Daniel Herring.
He’s hit upon a successful formula: Keep the actors on stage throughout the show, then accentuate the venue’s minimalism with impeccable scenic, lighting and sound design.
The result is an intensely intimate and supple theatrical experience. Joel C. Abels’ evocative set, which offers the bare framework of the front room of a modest Pittsburgh apartment, offers the magic of letting your mind fill in the details. Brandi Martin’s lighting design is first-rate, shifting from peaceful American life to the streets of Sarajevo. The sound design, credited to Marco Salinas and Regina Harris, offers tenderness and rage.
What I like best about the exceptional production design is the way it serves the actors in the excellent ensemble cast.
“The Music Lesson” tells the story of Irena (Leslie Martin) and Ivan (Chris Carsten), recent refugees from Sarajevo. He teaches violin and she the piano. Adjusting to American life has been rocky. When Ivan finds two new potential students, it marks their first step toward self-sufficiency.
Martin and Carsten are seasoned actors, and their performances and chemistry together are profound. Troubled by her memories of war, Irena is frequently “visited” by her beloved Maja (Haley Huntley, in a clear, pure, elegiac performance), a student she left behind in Sarajevo.
Her new piano student, Kat (a spunky Chelsea Newton), isn’t quite so endearing. While her teen-age angst might not compare to being bombed nightly, she has significant problems. (One fine thing is that the play doesn’t take the facile route of making light of Kat’s turmoil — it suggests that you can never really know how much someone is hurting inside.) Kat resists her lessons, and Ilena can’t help feeling disdain for “spoiled” American children.
Ivan fares better with Kat’s younger brother, Eddie (a sensitive Connor Pofahl), who starts taking violin lessons. But even here, the veil on the entitled American lifestyle is pulled back a little. (In one of the play’s most gripping lines, Eddie says simply: “We’re not a family … We’re just people living in the same home.”)
Offering a strikingly strong supporting role is Haley White as Mrs. Johnson, the mother, who represents the typical American viewpoint of the war. (Which is: She knows a little, but it’s all so confusing.) She crafts a performance that lets her character’s cracks begin to show.
Sometimes “The Music Lesson” is staged with recorded music. Other productions have included actors who perform their own instruments. Herring’s conceit is wonderful: a violinist (Kimberly Manning) and pianist (Gina Fazio) play in the background while the actors mime their music-making. It makes for a glorious theatricality.
There is so much profound about the play: the image of the music of Bach coexisting with bombs and sniper fire; the joviality of Ivan brushed with deep pain; the virtuousity of a pianist recreating the mediocrity of a sullen student; the use of light and texture to transport us across a continent and a world.
And the chance to see the way Martin composes herself “off-stage” after an emotional outburst. We see a quick retreat from her character and a swipe at real tears. For a reminder of how music can heal, this is a “Lesson” you won’t soon forget.
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