The press release for One Discordant Violin (a production of Halifax, Canada’s 2b theatre company, now at 59E59 Theaters) fails to do full justice to the play, which it describes in part as a “music-theater hybrid.” The inability to capture in words the show’s magical qualities seems apt, though: a chief theme of the 75-minute drama (which has been adapted from a short story by Yann Martel, best known for the novel Life of Pi) is the impossibility of language to adequately describe certain experiences.
Anthony Black adapted Martel’s story, co-directed the production (with Ann-Marie Kerr), designed the set, and appears onstage as the only performer with a speaking role. But Black is certainly not the whole show. His main collaborator, musician Jacques Mindreau, has teamed with live sound designer Aaron Collier to write some of the show’s music, which he performs—mostly as a violinist but also as vocalist. Added to the mix are the talents of Anna Shepard (assistant director and lighting designer) and Nick Bottomley (projection and lighting designer).
What this team of artists has created is a serious piece of storytelling that is also a glorious treat for the eyes and ears. If you’ve figured that the show will just be a guy narrating a short story while another guy plays violin, you’re certain to be pleasantly surprised.
The plot concerns a young Canadian man—an aspiring writer, full of dreams and unfocused ambitions—who visits Washington, D.C., in 2001, very shortly before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. After time spent at the usual D.C. sightseeing haunts, he ventures off the beaten path, where he discovers a dilapidated hidden theater called “The Merridew” at which a concert is scheduled to be performed by an ensemble consisting of musicians who are all Vietnam war veterans. Intrigued, our hero decides to attend the performance. An aura of mystery and even danger surrounds the event, and—as Black tells the tale and we experience it—the suspense heightens.
The show’s set depicts The Merridew, where plastic chairs have been set up for the unseen listeners, among broken plaster strewn on the floor. The back wall of the set contains translucent windows, through which distorted faces of the performers sometimes appear. During moments early in the play, light comes only from a flashlight, then the stage lighting creeps in. The play also makes use of projections, with words, images and, at one point, swirling punctuation marks visible on the walls. In a particularly surreal moment, an animated projection even appears on a piece of broken plaster held by a human hand.
Sound effects in the show are also dazzlingly eerie. Mindreau plays violin live, but there is also live looping and perhaps—one can’t really be sure—some traditional recorded effects as well. All of it holds together seamlessly. Sometimes Black’s amplified voice is given an echo effect, and sometimes not. Music is pervasive throughout the show, making the moments at which it is absent stand out.
Black’s character is an Everyman sort of protagonist—likable and good humored. Plus, the actor has one of those welcoming voices that is eminently listenable (NPR storyteller Scott Simon’s is comparable). Black also furnishes the voices of other characters in the story, most notably that of John Morton, the composer and star performer of the concert’s main event: a string concerto featuring the puzzlingly billed single “discordant violin.”
Mindreau adds to the mystery of the story. His playing is virtuosic, though he remains enigmatic. Not until the curtain call do we see his facial features fully.
The play centers on the content and meaning of Morton’s concerto, and we wait in anticipation to hear what this piece of music will sound like. No spoilers here about how that anticipation is answered. Suffice it to say, though, that the concerto’s effect on Black’s character is both palpable and unforgettable.
One Discordant Violin (through November 24, 2019)
2b theatre company
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 646-892-7999 or visit http://www.59e59.org
Running time: 75 minutes without an intermission