Review: Melancholy Play (The Empty Room)

The Empty Room explores melancholy through a quirky play at Toronto’s Collective Space

There’s something strangely comforting about the state of melancholy. It’s like a warm blanket that you know you really should just shrug off and get on with your day. But, no matter how much you rationally argue it, you continue to stay curled up in a big ball of slightly sad contemplation of the world around you. The Empty Room’s Melancholy Play makes a strong effort to explore the experience of this strange emotion from its manic highs to its crushing lows, all in a uniquely designed and performed package.

First things first, it’s important to point out that while the subject matter of Melancholy Play isn’t exactly the happiest one, the play itself is a farce. The characters are loud, designed in broad strokes for comedic effect and the plot is ridiculous to put it lightly. Tilly (Eva Barrie) is a bank teller who finds herself living in a perpetual state of melancholy; a state that somehow makes every person around her fall madly in love with her, or at least the idea of her. From her Psychiatrist, Lorenzo the Unfeeling (Patric Masurkevitch) to her tailor Frank (Courtenay Stevens) to her Hairdresser Frances (Rose Napoli) and even Frances’ nurse partner Joan (Suzanne Roberts Smith). Each of the people in her life become increasingly obsessed with Tilly and her seemingly transcendent state of melancholy.

Sarah Ruhl’s script is sharp, with some absolutely beautiful dialogue that transitions effortlessly from the poetic to the crass in a way that lets the audience just flow with it. The performances from the cast across the board bring the hilarity and pathos of the story to life. The only time I found myself struggling with the material was in the second act when a large dose of Magic Realism came into the plot that hadn’t really been foreshadowed or even established. Looking back on the play as a whole the concept worked, but I nevertheless found myself struggling with the idea in the moment.

One thing that I didn’t struggle with however was the set design. Incorporating frames from mirrors, windows and doors Karyn McCallum created a weird and quirky set that was easily manipulated by the cast, allowing for quick scene transitions and interesting blocking. As well, the almost entirely white set allowed for some very interesting lighting choices that played with colour as well as traditional light.

An interesting choice the production made was to have a live cellist (Cory Latkovich) playing most of the music throughout the play. At first it was a bit disconcerting as the music was a bit louder than the actors, drowning out some of the early dialogue, but the advantage of live music is that the musician can adjust their volume to deal with such problems and within ten minutes the issue had gone away completely.

Overall while the strange nature of Melancholy Play might be a bit too much for some, the sheer imagination of its production deserves at least consideration if you’re in the mood for some independent theatre this coming weekend.

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Photo of Patric Masurkevitch, Eva Barrie, Suzanne Roberts Smith, Rose Napoli and Courtenay Stevens by Greg Wong

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