Sarah Ruhl’s Melancholy Play is one of the rarest types of comedies. It’s a dark, acerbic work full of diabolical wit, but its tone and language is light and fluffy as white meringue. It’s a comedy full of surprise and whimsy and my God—it makes you laugh! It’s really a series of static moments, with two or three actors exchanging dialogue. Gradually, though, it gains momentum until the play starts to spin like a top, making one giddy with excitement.

At first, Melancholy Play seems an irreverent look at depression, but as it reeves up, it opens into a panoramic view of how our private inner life affects others, and not always with our awareness or permission.

It all starts out simply. Tilly, played by Eva Barrie, is a young bank clerk. She begins to demonstrate symptoms of “sadness”. She weeps. She stares out windows. The bank pays for her sessions with a psychiatrist. Tilly languishes on his psycho-analytic couch and describes her feelings, habits; observations. Her doctor, Lorenzo The Unfeeling, notes that perhaps, she’s enjoying her melancholia a bit too much. This might be true. Tilly is positively entranced with her unhappiness, as if she’s staring into a watery mirror. She describes sadness so tenderly; poetically. In fact, her melancholy becomes an alluring net, drawing in everyone Tilly meets including a local tailor named Frank, her hairdresser, the hairdresser’s lover, and even the psychiatrist. Misery not only loves company—crowds line up for it.

As humans, we can be tumble at any moment into emotional extremes, the origins of which can’t always be understood. But whatever their cause, our private feelings reach far beyond our little spheres and interact with others like unstable weather systems. And phenomenon is the crux of Melancholy Play. What starts out as a very minor tempest turns into Nature unjointed.

Photo by Greg Wong.

Photo by Greg Wong.

In the hands of a lesser playwright, tracking this human climate could get all too silly. But Sarah Ruhl has a unique touch. Her play reminds one of Tom Stoppard, or of other European writers who can be sharp, profound, and zany all at once. As the play’s lynchpin, Tilly isn’t “depressed” in any ordinary sense. She suggests a parody of the heroines in any number of Russian novels, women who suffer, their lives ruined by love and desire. As a character, Tilly’s quite interesting, but we’re far more fascinated by her effect on all and sundry. Her effect is hilarious.

The costumes designed by Karyn McCallum are wonderful, as is the fabulous set. The few objects that fill the great white stage — screens, a dress-makers mannequin, antique phonograph, a couch — all suggest the exquisite line drawings of New Yorker cartoons. A jumble of overlapping picture frames hang mid-air, reminding us we’re catching glimpses of posed, overlapping relationships and connections which move us forward, until we see the complete whole. Even the lighting design by Mikael Kangas is exciting, such as when the great white walls suddenly flush with emotion, turning blue or vivid red.

But you need more than a gorgeous look to make a play like this work. And director Jeffrey Pufahl is expert in setting the right tone for a comedy so dependent on style, pacing, punctuation, and detail. He’s also has a brilliant eye for casting. One couldn’t hope for better actors. Courtenay Stevens, Patric Masurkevitch, Eva Barrie, Rose Napoli, and Suzanne Roberts Smith each create an individual and memorable character. Even Cory Latkovich, who speaks only 4 words and plays the cello throughout, is visually perfect for the part. This group works wonderfully together. All are bright in this luminous production.

The Empty Room Theatre Collective produced Melancholy Play, which also gave us last year’s powerful and moving Journey’s End by R. C. Sherriff. As Artistic Director of The Empty Room, Edward Hillier deserves credit and congratulations for the groups choices and quality.

Sadly, Melancholy Play is only on till February 8. I advise you to make it a priority and get to the Collective Space at 221 Sterling Avenue now. You shouldn’t miss anything this fine and funny.


January 29th to February 8th 2015
Thursday – Sunday, 8pm

The Collective Space,
221 Sterling Road, Unit #5, Toronto

All photos by Greg Wong.

About Burke Campbell

Photographer, Writer, Journalist, Dramatist.
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