Play critiques melancholy’s idealization

How do we conceptualize melancholy? Is there beauty in sadness? Are we attracted, in some twisted way, to the idea of sorrow? “Melancholy Play,” a senior project in drama for director in addition to Whitney Brady ’18, Daisy Walker ’18 and director John Michael Rezes ’18, explores this complexity of human emotion and contradictory framing of sadness. Scheduled to be performed from Oct. 26 to 28 at 8 p.m. in the Powerhouse Theater, this chamber musical is an adaptation of Sarah Ruhl’s original play, reworked into a musical by composer Todd Almond.

This dramatic comedy revolves around a protagonist named Tilly, whose melancholic demeanor is so exquisite it causes every stranger she meets to fall in love with her. Soon, the relationships in Tilly’s life begin to lift her spirits. However, her happiness is not nearly as appealing as her sadness, and so, in an interesting turn of events, all her lovers fall out of love with her, resenting her for losing the one quality that made her so attractive in the first place.

Rezes explained the ironic premise of this experimental musical: “It’s a commentary on feminine sadness and the fetishization of sadness. But more than anything, it’s a very emotionally evocative piece, and the emotion sits in people’s heads, not quite noticeable, until they really start to feel for the characters.”

Further emphasizing the empathetic response that the show hopes to garner from the audience, Rezes continued, “While all the supporting characters objectify Tilly, you will see them all as individual people who are just trying to navigate this world of magic realism, and hopefully you will come to appreciate them as people as well, in all their complexity.”

As an audience member, it may feel uncomfortable or odd to empathize with the characters who have it in them to objectify and romanticize someone for their melancholia. However, the show aims to remove audiences from the cerebral default of what they think they would do in the same situation and rather places them into that emotional gray area where they ask themselves about how love functions, and about their own emotional reactions to people, as they watch this comedic and high-energy farce unfold.

Cast member Samantha Hodes ’20, who plays a psychiatrist from an unspecified European country, elaborated on this effect: “As Tilly starts to become happy, the characters begin to feel annoyed by her and her new joyful state. And as this plays out, the audience members put themselves into the shoes of the characters who fall out of love with her, starting to feel annoyed with her as well. And so it puts them into an odd self-reflective place where they start to think about why they think this way, and why people, in general, think this way, when it comes to love.”

Rezes explained that as a director, they wanted to stay as faithful to the original text as possible. In fact, Rezes even spoke to Ruhl directly and received her blessing. “It was a really nice experience as a senior who is doing their thesis to speak to the playwright of the play they’re directing, and have her approve of it,” they mentioned.

As a chamber musical, almost the whole show is underscored. Rezes expanded on how the entire cast has invested a lot of time and energy in ensuring that the melodic aspect of the play comes alive, regardless of whether or not they are from musical backgrounds. As Hodes expounded, “Since the music was actually added later, a lot of its focus is on the gravity of the lyrics, and bringing Sarah Ruhl’s words to life. So we feel that we have duty to really convey the interaction between music and meaning in the play.”

Rezes also illuminated what they ultimately hope to impress upon the audience: “It’s a play about how it’s okay to experience a range of emotions; that emotions come and go and it’s okay feel them in their temporality. We want to convey that complexity of human relationships.” The psychological insights of this play, presented in a whimsical, absurd manner, have been widely acclaimed, thus making it a thought-provoking piece for Vassar students to explore for their senior thesis project.

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