Friday, May 30, 2008

Play of the Week: Melancholy Play

The script of Melancholy Play includes this paragraph to be printed in the program notes for production:

The amygdada (Greek for almond, because it happens to be almond shaped) lies anterior to the hippocampus in the brain. The amygdada attaches affective color and social meaning to sensory information; it also receives primary olfactory input which accounts for the major role that olfaction plays in emotion and behavior. The amygdada plays a key role in the startle reflex and can generate flight or fight responses. The amygada also helps regulate appetite, mood, aggressive and sexual behavior, social behavior, and comprehension of social cues. Auras from partial seizures arising in the amygdada can cause olfactory sensations - for example: the smell of bitter almonds.

Almonds figure heavily into Sarah Ruhl's "contemporary farce."

In the opening moments of the play, Tilly comes forward and state that she is melancholy; indeed most of the characters in this story share her feelings. The tend to drift through life a little out of touch, not engaged, and somewhat listless. Suitable enough, the play is underscored by cello music played by a musician who should be "handsome and brooding." Frank states "that melancholy is a disappearing emotion" that is being phased out by depression.

Ruhl makes the distinction that depression is something that is harmful inflicting damage to one's self. Melancholy, however is "a necessary bodily humor - that there is a certain amount necessary in mourning." The play goes on from here to explore the intersecting lives of several individuals who are subject to melancholy. Some are looking to help themselves become happy while others are content to wallow in their current state of mind. This too becomes dangerous as one character is so consumed by she turns into an almond.

As you can guess, all of this could become tedious fairly fast. The play is saved because it is farce. Retaining Ruhl's poetry, the script never becomes wild and wacky like a Georges Faydeau or Joe Orton farce. However, it is very important to remember that the subject matter is not taking itself seriously. The play must walk a razor's edge, but if it does not fall, the effect can be quite moving.

This play is one of Ruhl's best. She is still developing her voice, so some of the passages can feel a little obtuse. It is, however, one of the best opportunities to see what her plays are made of and how they are constructed. To follow Ruhl at all, this script is a must read.

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