Friday, October 16, 2009

The Black Duckling

My friends at Dream Threatre opened an extraordinary play tonight, The Black Duckling, by Jeremy Menekseoglu, the prolific playwright who was tonight proclaimed "the Ibsen of Pilsen". (Dream Theatre is located in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood.)

The play is presented as a "silent melodrama", much of it with a live musical accompaniment by composer and flautist Trevor Watkin. I'm no musicologist, but Watkin's music struck me as a fusion between jazz and classical, and very pleasing to listen to, when I could pull my brain off the storyline and focus on the tunes. I think they should come out with a soundtrack CD.

A projection screen is overhead, and words appear there in sync with the action. Sometimes it is dialog. Sometimes it is rhymed narration. The actors move in sync with the musical background - which takes us back to the 19th century meaning of melodrama.

I found it took some getting used to, watching an unvocalized but musical play onstage. For a lot of the first act I was still thinking about the impression it made as a mode of story telling. That went away with the second act. By then I was fully emotionally engaged in the story and characters.

The setting, to me, felt like a European town, pre-World War II, a town with a cemetery, and a burlesque hall, and a eugenicist doctor. Not a town where I would want to raise a kid. They style of the play is somehow closer to a fairy tale than to a naturalistic story, closer to the poetic Ibsen than prose Ibsen.

The play has enough thematic material for 4 ordinary plays, which kind of leaves your head spinning with ideas when it's over. Menekseoglu is never short on ideas. In this case, a lot of the ideas revolve around the beauty of a certain kind of innocence.

That beauty and innocence is embodied by the luminous Anna Weiler, playing Slee, a young woman with an overbearingly religious father, played with characteristic gravity by Menekseoglu himself. Slee finds a job working as a maid for a burlesque dancer, but doesn't tell her father the exact nature of the work done by this "fine lady".

Slee proceeds to slide into the confusing world of people who see sex - and imperfect children - as curses upon humankind, a view she is never learns to share, despite being betrayed repeatedly by people who imagine they are trying to protect her.

Megan Merrill is wonderfully hardbitten as the "fine lady" burlesque dancer who wants to spare Slee the fate that befell herself. Bil Gaines is charming as the idealistic poet who finds himself torn between Platonic Love and Earthly Lust. Danielle Gennaoui shines as a crippled child with love in her heart. Dori Scallet and Stacie Hauenstein are disturbingly pleasant as the eugenicist doctor's efficient nurses.

There's some choreographed burlesque dancing, but be forewarned (or reassured) that none of the young ladies ever gets anywhere near to being nude.

One of my own obsessions is rhyme, and one of the things I like so much about the play was its use of verse and rhyme. An actual poem, about "the black duckling," plays a key role in the plot, and makes a strong thematic statement as well. The poem has a William Blake feel to it, perhaps because Blake, too, was fascinated by innocence - and its opposite.

The innocence of a child's fresh start
rarely survives in the grown-up's heart.

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