"Fiddling in the Dark"
While watching One Discordant Violin, a one-actor, one-musician piece at 59E59 Theaters, I couldn’t help thinking of a thematically unrelated show I’d seen the night before, Broadbend, Arkansas, even though the latter is a musical and the former a play. Broadbend, Arkansas is in two parts, each featuring one actor who sings and speaks while accompanied by a musical ensemble. The actor in One Discordant Violin doesn’t sing but the tale he tells is about music, and much of what he says is underscored by a violinist.
|Jacques Mindreau, Anthony Black. All photos: Carol Rosegg.|
The substance of each work is, essentially, a tale of past events that led the characters to their present state. Broadbend, Arkansas begins with a Southern black man narrating how he became caught up in the Civil Rights movement. Its second act, years later, features the man’s now grown daughter, whose son has been beaten by the police; what she says represents how the movement’s goals remain unresolved. Remove the musical background and each half could as easily be a short story as a performance. With conflicts mainly remembered or internalized, their impact as drama is greatly diminished.
One Discordant Violin is itself adapted from a short story (“The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin”), written by Yann Martel (Life of Pi) and adapted by its star, Anthony Black. Black, codirector of the 2B Theatre Company of Halifax, Canada, shared the direction with Ann-Marie Kerr.
Its original music is by Aaron Collier and Jacques Mindreau, the latter a violinist who not only accompanies Black’s performance but gets plenty of stage time to display his virtuosity, including an opening sequence before the play proper begins.
The unit set, also designed by Black, shows a few folding chairs surrounded by rubble in what once was a beautiful theatre but is now being demolished. A background wall of translucent screens allows for haunting lighting effects designed by Nick Bottomley and Anna Shepard, as well as multiple projections created by Bottomley.
Once again, dramatic conflict is remembered rather than experienced in the present as the unnamed speaker recites his story in the first person, shifting voices (as in the first of Broadbend, Arkansas’s parts) to represent other people. The story, though fictional, contains so many enticingly authentic-sounding details it seems, at first, to be autobiographical rather than made up.
The speaker, a Canadian, tells us of an experience he had in the summer of 2001 (upped from the story’s 1988 but, oddly, with no connection to 9/11), while visiting a friend in Washington, D.C. At the time, he was a feckless young man with vague educational/career goals, leaning toward being a writer, perhaps in the vein of Joseph Conrad, who inspires a dissertation on the genius of his punctuation.
The man talks about envying his D.C. friend for having already graduated from an elite college and made a career with the accounting behemoth Arthur Andersen, a current client being Donald Trump, a reference that goes nowhere.
While exploring one of the city’s seedier neighborhoods he noticed in the window of a barber shop an announcement for a special concert at the (fictional) Merridew Theater by the Maryland Vietnam War Veterans’ Baroque Chamber Ensemble. The program would include selections from Albinoni, Bach, and Telemann, along with the world premiere of an unfinished concerto by an unknown composer, John Morton.
Although declaring himself ignorant about music (a claim the narrative belies), the speaker’s writerly curiosity convinced him to buy a ticket. In precisely detailed prose, he describes the seriously distressed theatre, the vets running the concert, and, of course, the concert itself. The latter provides Mindreau an ample showcase, supplemented by recordings of additional orchestration (Aaron Collier did the sound design).
Despite the shabby surroundings and the amateur musicians, the man’s initial skepticism was soon erased, especially as he found himself overwhelmed with the beauty of Morton’s concerto, “mistakes” and all. He became obsessed with Morton, who conducted his own composition, but turned out, surprisingly, to be an alcoholic janitor with rather peculiar work habits. The narrative looks back on what happened after the speaker tracked Morton down, and the eventual, disappointing, fate of the concerto.
In the literary climax, the narrator reads the notes in which he described what he deemed the remarkable quality of Morton’s music. The words, while vividly crafted, are themselves a kind of concerto. There’s no way, however, they can accurately describe a piece of music, which he heard only once, so that we can recreate it in our minds, especially since what he’s describing is totally fictional. It’s not as if he’s painting a word picture of something by Bach. What we get seems little more than a pretentious attempt at synesthetic prose.
One Discordant Violin, which runs around an hour and 10 minutes. touches on the transformative power of a work of art, even one as flawed as Morton’s, as well as on the eternal conflict of art and commerce. In the end, however, the initial hint at a potentially supernatural experience—as in the discovery, via dark, deserted hallways, of a once-spectacular theatre in a building without any outward signs of its existence—peters out and the narrator’s epiphany, meaningful as it is for him, remains purely personal, lacking a significant conclusion.
Black’s performance is fine: honest, charming, and intense. Mindreau’s musicianship adds considerably to the elegiac mood. Still, like Broadbend, Arkansas, One Discordant Violin—even with such good performances—remains somewhat out of tune.
59E59 Theaters/Theater B
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through November 24