Review: Love Song ~ theatre notes

Friday, March 07, 2008

Review: Love Song

Love Song by John Kolvenbach, directed by Craig Ilott. Designed by Nicholas Dare, lighting by Jon Buswell, composer Basil Hogios, a/v by Brian Hughes. With Caroline Craig, Greg Stone, Thomas Wright and Julia Zemiro. Melbourne Theatre Company @ the Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre until April 19. Bookings: 1300 723 038.

At first blush, it seems a little surprising that Love Song was premiered by the famously serious Chicago company Steppenwolf. After all, John Kolvenbach’s avowed intention is to aim straight for an audience’s “squashy middle” – the soft centre that thrills to pop songs and secretly weeps at Disney movies. (Come on, admit it, we all have it. As Kolvenbach claims, even the most ferociously unsentimental minimalist possesses a private cupboard somewhere full of old year books and billets-doux.)

An off-beat romantic comedy, Love Song concerns a small family - the ruthless and uptight businesswoman Joan (Julia Zemiro), her mentally ill brother Beane (Thomas Wright) and Joan’s husband, Harry (Greg Stone). When Beane’s poverty-stricken apartment is burgled, he meets the woman of his dreams, Molly (Caroline Craig), and falls in love. And suddenly his world is transformed: the grey veil of his depression lifts, and he finds himself exhilarated by the simple pleasures of being alive: the taste of sandwiches, the colours of sunlight, the warmth of human touch.

Beane’s joy is contagious, infecting his sister and her husband, who rediscover the love that still exists beneath their oppositional bickering. Beane and his sister are at different poles: Beane is startlingly unmaterialistic, living in a flat bare of almost everything except a rotting sofa and a spoon, while Joan is a tough, successful businesswoman. The action of the play is basically these two extremes meeting in the "squashy middle".

The play’s catch-cry is “Death to literalism!” And indeed, read literally (as, perhaps, a demonstration of how love is an instant cure-all for mental illness) it doesn’t make a lot of sense. And it’s here that it might be most justly accused of sentimentality.

However, Kolvenbach’s point is rather that love (like faith, hope and even theatre) might be an illusion, but that it’s an illusion that can generate its own reality. And that its erotic vitality is what makes life worth living. It’s a simple thesis, but here delivered with a disarming dose of peppery humour that doesn't (excuse the mixed metaphors) sit on the fence and undercut itself with defensive irony. Besides, what Kolvenbach says is true.

The result is an enjoyable fantasy that dances along the perilous edge of whimsy. Despite some wobbles - most notably in a couple of overlong scenes between Molly and Beane - it never quite falls into bathos: the play is saved by some deft comic dialogue and Kolvenbach’s considerable lyric gift.

It’s hard to imagine that it could have been given a better production. Nicholas Dare’s stylish design features a revolve, which permits fluid and various shifts between the play’s differing realities. Craig Ilott’s direction is sure and economical, wisely taking the play at its own value: he neither gives it a weight it doesn't have, nor flinches from its honesties. It only wavers in the overlong dialogues between Molly and Beane, where you have the sense that a lack of action in the dialogue leads to some over-compensation in its physicalistion.

The design is also notable for John Buswell’s expressive lighting and Brian Hughes’s visual projections, which unobstrusively permit the stage to alter from a spare naturalism to lyrical emotional environments.

But the evening really belongs to the actors. Stone and Zemiro are at their best here, and the erotic energy between them fairly crackles. Wright manages Beane’s extremes – from withdrawn interiority to excessive exuberance – with grace and emotional honesty. As Beane’s inscrutable lover, Craig has perhaps the most difficult role, but she creates an impishly appealing presence.

Love Song is hardly profound, and it manipulates your emotions in much the same way as a good pop song. But there's nothing wrong with that, when it's as well achieved as it is here: it doesn't insult your intelligence, and can even touch the edge of something true. It's certainly among the shortest two hours I’ve ever spent at the Fairfax.

Picture: Thomas Wright and Caroline Craig in John Kolvenbach's Love Song.

A shorter version of this review is published in today's Australian. And an update: I just noticed the oddest typo (which unfortunately made it into the Oz): instead of "death to literalism", I wrote "death is literalism". Take a letter, Dr Freud. Though I guess that it is exactly the kind of typo a poet would make.


Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Glad that you enjoyed.

As someone who was present for the world premiere at Steppenwolf a couple years back, I was struck with the same fizzy bounce. And I can also tell you that as serious as you may think Steppenwolf is, it's underlying strength is its humanity mixed with a profound sense of humor.

That's what ultimately makes their productions resonate and so enjoyable.

Anonymous said...

Saw this last night and felt it was by far the most enjoyable thing MTC have done this year.

However, I just wish MTC would stop staging their plays with accents. I can’t remember the last time I saw one where the actors did a decent job of it and it just isn’t necessary - particularly with a play like this one. Why does it matter where it is set? The accents are usually so bad that they just detract from the experience of watching the play. Surely we are, in 2008, able to have our actors perform with their own accents and not have to locate everything elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

I have not commented on this blog before, but felt compelled after sitting through 'Lovesong'. I must declare my bias from the outset, having an immediate family member with severe schizophrenia. This play was at its strongest during the droll exchanges between Beane's sister and husband, which were sharp, but essentially just filler. The treatment of the subject Beane I found trite and facile. I know the play was not 'about' mental illness, but to see a family be uplifted and enriched by their brother's delusional experience bordered on offensive. And for Beane to gain the wisdom though his hallucinatory love to realise the value of the real world, and the courage to go out and live in it, resembled nothing from reality, nor more importantly, contained any sort of emotional truth. This idealised and false representation of the power of love simply detracts from any real emotional or sentimental impact. The cast and direction were excellent, I just cannot stomach this woeful script. I actually found it worse than Disney schmaltz because it flirted around such serious issues.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Anon - I respect your response. I too have an immediate family member who has suffered for many years from acute mental illness, and am acutely aware of the real anguish it causes. I saw Love Song with my mother, who has devoted the past two decades and considerable personal sacrifice to this family member's care, and neither of us felt offended by the play's treatment of the subject. Yes, it was a light play, and perilously close to whimsy: but for me the emotional truth was really a metaphorical one about imagination (which is, after all, a form of delusion) and which is where we all begin as human beings to change our worlds.