Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Play's the Thing

[The Adagio from the Serenade for thirteen wind instruments (K. 361) begins to sound. Quietly and quite slowly, seated in the wing chair, SALIERI speaks over the music.]

SALIERI: It started simply enough: just a pulse in the lowest registers — bassoons and basset horns — like a rusty squeezebox. It would have been comic except for the slowness, which gave it instead a sort of serenity. And then suddenly, high above it, sounded a single note from the oboe.

[We hear it.]

It hung there unwavering, piercing me through, till breath could hold it no longer, and a clarinet withdrew it out of me, and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight it had me trembling. The light flickered in the room. My eyes clouded! ...I called up to my sharp old God, “What is this? . . . What?!...Tell me, Signore! What is this pain? What is this need in the sound? Forever unfulfillable, yet fulfilling him who hears it, utterly. Is it Your need? Can it be Yours? . . .”
-from Amadeus, Act One, Scene 5

Last night I took my daughter to see a high school production of Peter Shaffer's play Amadeus. I was a little younger than she is now when my parents took me to see Ian McKellen as Salieri on Broadway. I can still remember the production. Taking me to the theater was one of the best things my parents did for my education during my childhood. I want my children to have the same opportunity.

It was a big first for us. My daughter had never seen a real play before - our theater outings have been to musicals, ballets, and opera, but so far no plays. And she had never really been allowed to watch anything R-rated, or any piece with real "adult content." We were both eager to see what this cast would do with this challenging work.

We were not disappointed. In fact, our jaws were on the floor over the principals, Jacob Scharfman and Rob Knoll, the extraordinarily talented, impressive young actors who played Salieri and Mozart. I always love watching amazingly gifted young performers bring to life these complex, often difficult works; their energy is boundless, and they have none of the jaded arrogance that older professional performers can sometimes project. They throw themselves body and soul into these roles, generously, and the result, if they have some native skill and some strong guidance, can be breathtaking.

I realized after seeing it again that I liked the play even better than the film, despite my love of the movie's incomparable dictation scene. Salieri in the play struggles more, shows more complexity and passion, and when you watch this live - the flesh-and-blood character searching his soul even while he's giving in to his evils, just a few feet away from you - the effect is stunning.

My 11-year-old daughter had some wonderful insights from her enjoyment of the performance. She noticed the living, breathing, dynamic nature of live performance as opposed to performance on film; the energy added by the audience; the responsibility the actors bear, to carry the entire story with their own voices and faces and movements, without being able to rely on help from songs, scores, or special effects; the way physical acting can be just as important as vocal, a fact underscored by the outstanding portrayal of both the boorish, goofy Mozart and the tremulously ill yet feverishly driven Mozart by Rob Knoll in last night's production.

Children should go to the theater. They should absolutely go and see LIVE THEATER. Not just the fun stuff - though I love a good Christmas revue - but the challenging stuff, too. We should put our kids in touch with material that makes them ask questions, and think of more than one side of an issue; stories that draw them into a world that makes them see their own world anew; characters that open their eyes, through the specifics of a few, to insights about humanity, and perhaps to a more developed compassion for its members. The stories we learn, read, write, hear, and enter into ultimately recreate us. I'm looking forward to the next play!

My Favorite Plays

The Crucible by Arthur Miller
Proof by David Auburn
Amadeus by Peter Shaffer
You Can't Take It With You by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart
The Arabian Nights by Mary Zimmerman
Copenhagen by Michael Frayn
Noises Off by Michael Frayn
Master Class by Terrence McNally


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for your post. I'm writing back on behalf of the group of parents that supports theatre arts in Belmont most directly, which I co-lead. It was an extraordinary experience, and I'm glad your daughter had a chance to be part of it. That particular moment sticks with me as the most moving of the play...the moment when both the greatness of Mozart and the greatness of live theatre join. Other people have told me that that moment has stuck in their minds for years since first seeing and hearing AmadeuS: we are - thankfully - not alone.

T said...

Thank you for stopping by - and for the work you've done to support theatre arts for young people!

Dragonfly said...

When I was under 12 my mother used to take me to the ballet, just the two of us. It was so great (its not that we stopped when I turned 10, just that we moved somewhere where there was no ballet).

Jo said...

I concur whole heartedly - I was very lucky as a child to get to see a lot of live performances with family and school (mostly of the musical / Christmas panto kind, but also some serious live theatre - seeing Derek Jacobi in "Uncle Vanya" when I was 14 will stick with me forever).

My theatre going was so entrenched in me that when I went to the cinema to see my first live action film ("Masters of the Universe" - I was 6) I couldn't understand how they got the instant costume changes to work - when my mother explained that they'd stopped the camera and come back later, I asked how, as the audience would have got bored and walked away if that had happened!

I much prefer seeing something live - the knowledge that tonight's performance will be completely different to anything that has been before or since gives me an extra thrill.

Bo said...

Wonderful post---and I so agree. My sister-in-law "forced" her son to take piano lessons when he was younger and I remember him griping about it---and the family cringing whenever he played. But guess what? This past weekend he played piano on a score which might make "Gray's Anatomy". And he's happy as a clam.

FutureAnesthesiologist said...

How does stuff like this go unrecognized in the OR?

choi jong kook S.Korea said...

good experice for your daughter

and you . you are so kind person i am sure

Hinzi said...

One of the most brilliant plays. And you cannot beat that score! Our daughter has been to concerts, plays, poetry readings, musicals, and opera since she was born. She had to be removed from the audience at times, and left “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf” voluntarily at intermission when she was eight.

We never pressured her to learn an instrument or perform, but she caught the bug and has performed in concerts, musicals, and opera, got degrees in theater and voice performance, and is now directing opera.

Thanks for sharing that story!

Anonymous said...

As a mom who feels incredibly lucky to spend time with the kids in the performing arts company (I drive many kids home after rehearsal--my son is one of the ones you mentioned), I would like to invite you to the BHS PAC's show opening this week on Thursday March 12th thru Sat. March 14: Les Miserables (student edition) tells Victor Hugo's tale while shortening the Broadway musical to 2 hours, more suitable for young voices than the 3hour original.
The students have had many challenges including having to miss rehearsal time in the last week due to a snow day, a fire alarm mid-rehearsal (on a freezing night) but are ready to show and sing you the story if you and your daughter have time to attend. Mozart (Rob) now returns to his comic roots as the untrustworthy innkeeper who sings "Master of the House," and two heroic Valjeans alternate performances: Valjean #1 on Thursday night and Saturday afternoon, and Valjean #2 on Friday and Saturday nights. We hope you and your daughter can come and enjoy the show!
Thank you for your kind words and support of ALL these hardworking students who find such joy in the work and play of Theatre!

T. said...

Just saw opening night with my daughter. Rob totally stole the show - what a talent!