by Terrance Mc Arthur
The Music Lesson, written by Tammy Ryan, was originally commissioned by a children’s theater group, but this is not kid’s stuff. It deals with war and divorce and snipers and Bach. StageWorks Fresno is staging this exploration of the links between our world and 1990’s Sarajevo at the Bonner Auditorium in the Fresno Art Museum through May 3.
Irena (Leslie Martin) and Ivan (Chris Carsten) have escaped war-torn Bosnia and settled in the USA in Pittsburgh. They were musicians, and begin taking on new students, a brother, and sister. The girl, Kat (Chelsea Newton) tries to be tough and fights Irena’s piano teaching. Inside Irena’s mind, there are swirling memories of Maja (Haley Huntley), a student she taught in Sarajevo.
Leslie Martin faces a massive challenge in the role of Irena, dealing with the past and the present, Sarajevo and Pittsburgh…and accent challenges…and miming the piano. She is loving with her husband, confused with English, frustrated with Kat, and tormented by thoughts of Maja. You don’t have to hear this performance; you can see it, and you can feel it.
Chris Carsten can be brash or gentle, and his interpretation of Ivan is gentle, with a light touch of humor. Carsten has played everything from John Adams to Henry Higgins to a prisoner-of-war to King Arthur, and his befuddled battles with a new language have a cheerful charm. I like the way accents are handled in the play. When Ivan and Irena are in Pittsburgh, their syntax is slightly fractured, as if they were trying to build English from Bosnian building blocks. In Irena’s memories, there is no need to translate, and so they speak with no accents.
I’ve watched Chelsea Newton grow up on the Good Company stages, from the Junior Company to To Kill a Mockingbird and The Sound of Music. She’s always confident and bubbly, but this performance strips away the smile and gives her a surly attitude as a child of divorce who sees herself as second best in her mother’s eyes.
Connor Pofahl plays Eddie, the musical-prodigy brother like a real kid, a little bit awkward until he picks up a violin, yet still needing direction: not happy about his parents’ divorce, but the music helps him focus. Pofahl and Carsten pantomime their violin playing in a consistent manner without actual instruments. The live music is provided wonderfully by the onstage Gina Fazio (piano) and Kimberly Manning (violin). The sounds of Bach, Gounod, and others pour out of the Bonner Auditorium’s chamber-music-size stage.
An ethereal, white-fringed dress on Huntley gives her an angelic/ghostly appearance, a contrast to Newton’s Goth appearance. They are also contrasts in character: a child of war trying to hold onto music as a lifeline, and a child of plenty rejecting music because she doesn’t want to feel the pain of her life.
Haley Wallace gets little respect as the workaholic mother of the two Pittsburgh students, a wannabe Tiger Mother who has trouble sustaining that level of engagement. When the show’s actors aren’t part of the action, they sit in two rows of chairs on the stage, observing the play and the audience. Atticus Martin, unbilled, makes a brief, chilling appearance that reinforces the unfairness and insanity of the wars in the former Yugoslavia and the terrors of our own time.
Music can ease pain, and it can bring up memories of pain. This play is music. The Music Lesson plays in the Bonner Auditorium of the Fresno Art Museum, 2233 North 1st Street. For information and tickets, go to the StageWorks Fresno website.
My wife says, “Go see this show.” She sees a lot of plays with me. I’d listen to her, if I were you.
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