Over this past year, I've been fortunate enough to have attend a decent number of plays in Chicago (thanks, Stephanie!). I've seen big ones, small ones, 'student' ones, staged readings, musicals, and most were mostly good. I saw one this weekend that I will highly recommend to all my musician and non-musician friends: What to Listen For by Kathleen Tolan, at the Side Project Theater.
I always have a hard time speaking about plays. It's not that I don't feel like I have good things to say, it's just that as a musician I focus on different things than other people. When seeing a musical, I'm judging the songwriting and vocal performances instead of the book; when watching a movie I'm paying attention to whether Adrian Brody is actually trying to play the piano (answer: he did a decent job!). So when a play is billed as featuring Mahler, Schoenberg, Freud, and Glenn Gould, I was prepared either to be spoken to in my native tongue, or to be severely disappointed. I was not severely disappointed.
The play centers on an estranged mother and daughter, the first a music lover, and the later a music student who fled the country to study in Berlin. In various dream-states they meet great historical figures and examine life and relationships through their relationship with Western Art Music past and present. I don't know if Tolan was a serious music student, but if not she's a darn good researcher. An example: Gould's story of the piano and the vaccuum cleaner. Another: the discussion of if Schoenberg's atonality is actually just well disguised tonality. Others may have missed the beauty of these little details, but a formally trained musician doesn't.
While at times the limited budget got in the way (non-equity, bad violin playing, good piano playing on a terrible piano), the outstanding writing was highlighted by Adam Goldstein's solid direction and his imaginative use of resources (shadow puppets ala Manual Cinema!). David Prete played a very convincing Glenn Gould, and has almost certainly watched one of my favorite movies, 32 Short Films. Further applause to Holly Allen (the mother) and to Sally Dolembo (costumes) for nailing Gould's signature look.
It's only open for another week, so find a time to get there soon. And, let us all give thanks for Chicago's storefront theater tradition!