[originally published: http://www.aislesay.com/CHI-PIANO-TUNER.html]


by Daniel Mason
Adapted by James E. Grote
Directed by Jonathan Berry
Lifeline Theatre
6912 N. Glenwood Avenue / (773) 761-4477
Through March 25, 2007

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
February 17, 2007

James E. Grote‘s adaptation of the novel “The Piano Tuner” by Daniel Mason offers a view of a Victorian sensibility dropped into a lush Burmese paradise, with disease and political unrest waiting at the edges. We soon hear that “The sun that rises in Burma is different from the sun that rises in the rest of the world” and with this lovely production, with these skillful actors artfully directed and choreographed, in a delightfully evocative set, we share the sun and the moon and the chants and the puppet play of another culture in a distant time.

Our two primary characters, Edgar Drake (Patrick Blashill) and Dr. Anthony Carroll (Kurt Ehrmann) provide two sides of the Victorian gentleman, one who has “gone native” (perhaps) and another who has been sent to visit. Drake, a piano tuner and reluctant musician is called upon by military personnel to travel to Burma to tune a fancy piano Carroll has dragged with him into the jungle (a massive move of Victorian chutzpah or something else?), where he has set up a medical clinic. We see the Doctor in his surgery, executing cures and amputations; Dr. Carroll says to Edgar once he finally introduces him to the beloved grand piano: “Good luck with the patient.” There is a clear intended equivalence between the two men.

Carroll’s remote post in Mandalay provides immediate allusions (intended and unintended) to other works. The shorthand movie pitch for this (or so we believe at the play’s beginning) is Joseph Conrad‘s” Heart of Darkness” or its Viet Nam era remake “Apocalypse Now” (journey into the sodden sexualized jungle interior to find your true nature) meets Jane Campion’s “The Piano” (redemption and finding one’s voice through music in the context of a jungle). Does it make sense to send a man half way around the world to tune a piano deep in a humid jungle? Could this be all that is on the military mind? The Surgeon Major Dr. Carroll seems to have some special powers; the people appear to be in awe rather than in fear of him. He is presented as irreplaceable , and the reasoning provided to the skeptical tuner based in London when contemplating this trip around the world is that “its cheaper to send a man than a piano.” Edgar Drake is our bemused, confused, ultimately transformed British tuner (strikingly reluctant to admit that he himself can play — is this false modestly or a resistance to accepting the role of artist?), and his patient, earnest, steadfast wife back home Katherine (Melanie Esplin). With little intimate bits of dialogue such as “you’ve learned the map of my hand well”, their close and affectionate ten-year marriage is evoked efficiently, and shows what Drake is leaving behind to being his adventure.

Captain Dalton (Eric Martig) guides us and Drake from Marseille to Bombay by ship, and along the way Edgar meets a deaf Man With One Story (Yosh Mayashi) who precedes to tell that story involving a shipwreck, the Red Sea, and a murderous trading grandmother. The Man says that “my ears stopped sensing songs – somehow they knew they wouldn’t hear such perfection again.” This stage is now set for metaphors involving the role of violence and the meaning of music. Our piano tuner meets the Doctor, goes with him on a tiger hunt and witnesses some magic and violence in the jungle: a puppet show, a mistaken killing; and comes to some conclusions about the soldiers he encounters in the jungle (he assumes they are there to maintain the peace rather than to wage war). One character interjects: “the officers would prefer to fight; peace is a poor fertilizer for promotion”. Again, the potential for violence presents itself.

There is of course some romance in the jungle: Edgar has some close encounters with a native woman Khin Myo (Fawzia Mirza), who speaks perfect English, runs a boarding house in the city yet seems to spend a great deal of time with the Doctor in the jungle. Dr. Carroll feels at times like the mysterious white man who has made a life deep at the center of the jungle in “Heart of Darkness”. Carroll’s military colleagues note of him, as they get warier and warier of him, despite his medical successes with the locals: “A man with an obsession for a piano can hardly be immune to other eccentricities.” The rest of the play’s plot is in part uncovering these eccentricities.

The director Jonathan Berry has choreographed some marvelous scene transitions accompanied and syncopated by a troupe of intriguing characters. These individuals (which seem to involve any and all members of the cast not immediately involved in costume changes for their next scene) include turbaned Burmese locals or sailors or umbrella-ed London business men, clerks with papers and “still more papers”, choreographed delightfully.

The scenic and prop design by Alan Donahue is spare and lush at the same time, a masterful utilization of Lifeline’s compact performance space. The palette of the space is carefully composed: woven sheets of bamboo maps; flowing blue structure occupying the upstage left corner used decoratively and illuminated as a flowing waterfall in certain jungle scenes. There is a splendid and efficient use of simple set pieces and props, choreographed with the ‘chorus’ and framing characters: poles to represent oars, or rifles, or horses, depending upon the situation; bamboo latticework represents train rails. The piano itself is interestingly on stage, in pieces throughout the play, hinting at the whole instrument, disembodied and a kind of work of art, a podium for action. The grand piano’s legless body is center stage, covered with a tarp for over half of the play (legs removed, the body resting on the floor) and serving as a playing surface, a proxy raft, a ship deck. Once the piano is revealed and the tuner “meets” it, the piano body is hoisted by rigging affixed to several corners to piano playing height. The strung sound board of a piano is affixed vertically to the rear of the stage, and raised and lowered at times, to be illuminated as decoration and as art, and even played as a harp. A beautiful staging contextual work of art and musical instrument choice.

Sound design by Joshua Horvath is rich and alternately realistic (train, sea, splashing waterfall, piano itself) and surrealistic. Water movement and songs of the rock are incorporated into the setting.. “a song to welcome the man of man”. Fight choreography (listed at “violence design” in the program) by R & D Choreography is moving and masterful.

The piano is an object on whose behalf things happen, on which actions are imposed, always represented though sometimes as metaphor and sometimes as concrete object.. When the piano is finally played, a character comments that it doesn’t sound like music, “it sounds like everything”. The piano shifts from inert to living, from proxy to real, in the course of the play. “The Piano Tuner” is a play of social (relations), cultural (shadow play), political (factions) and individual transformation. Is this “heart of darkness” or “heart of lightness”? Our hero Drake gradually unburdens his Victorian accoutrement with more time in the wild. This is a splendid journey to travel with him.

© Martha Wade Steketee (February 17, 2007)

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