ENOCH ARDEN BY ALFRED, LORD JABBER AND HIS CATATONIC SONGSTRESS text by Judith Thompson, music by Richard Strauss, directed by Maria Lamont, with John Fitzgerald Jay and Kristin Mueller. Theatre Centre (1087 Queen West). Previews begin Friday (September 16), opens Wednesday (September 21) and runs to October 9, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $5-$15, Sunday pwyc, student and preview discounts. 416-538-0988. Rating: NNNNN
When was the last time you saw a film that didn't have some kind of musical score or a TV show that didn't have mood music? Even if we're not consciously aware of it, music affects our emotional responses. Operas and musicals clearly rely on music, while local composers like Richard Feren and John Gzowski are adept at underscoring - in several senses - our reactions to a straight play.
Director Maria Lamont's gone further afield in blending music and theatre for Enoch Arden By Alfred, Lord Jabber And His Catatonic Songstress.
A Victorian poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson inspired composer Richard Strauss to write an 1898 piece using the format of the "melodrama," then a popular performance genre. Lamont asked her friend, playwright Judith Thompson, to update the same material, using both Tennyson's narrative and Strauss's music.
Don't confuse this with the kind of melodrama where a Snidely Whiplash character fingers his moustache and tells the blond heroine she must pay the rent. This is instead a theatrical form that brings together text and music - sometimes alternating, sometimes simultaneous - to tell a story.
"I was interested in staging a small, intimate musical work with a classical background," recalls Lamont, "and thought Strauss's piece had the most dramatic potential. Also, the music's beautiful in this rare solo-piano work by a composer known for his operas."
She knew she couldn't stage it in its original form, with an actor reciting Tennyson's text (about a married man lost for years at sea who returns to find his wife living happily with his former rival) while a pianist offers musical commentary.
"No," she says firmly, "Claude Rains and Glenn Gould did it once, but most audiences today would guffaw."
When she asked Thompson, who recently received the Order of Canada, to adapt the piece, Lamont requested only that the pianist be kept as a character who would communicate with the speaker through music.
After three years of development, the show, then called simply Enoch Arden On Sorauren, was one of the hits at SummerWorks 2004.
Thompson's reimagined Tennyson's narrative in a Parkdale halfway house, where the loquacious and sometimes neurotic Jabber tries to pull the mute Ciel, a pianist, out of a pit of depression by involving her in a local talent contest.
Intriguingly performed by John Fitzgerald Jay and Kristin Mueller, the show blends Victorian text, Maritime flavour and musical nuance in a disturbing tale that ends with a promise of hope.
"Ciel starts from a terrible emotional place, about to descend into a catatonic depression, and the rehearsals organized by her long-time friend Jabber seem to have gone off track," notes Lamont, who's left stage performing to move into the world of opera directing. "They're both on the fringes of society, troubled with mental and emotional problems.
"But on a bigger level, the show looks at how we use art, and especially music, to communicate things that words can't - art is a vehicle that can make us free from the interior baggage we carry through life."
Lamont admits, smiling and then sipping a cup of green tea, that her move from theatre to opera means that when she's watching a play she often misses the music.
"Somehow that shift has shown me the limits of language. Every once in a while I think there should be an aria.
"Even in Enoch Arden we've added other music - there's some Mozart, Johann Strauss and an art song by Richard Strauss - to give a different kind of theatrical life to Ciel and Jabber.
"The music provides important fluidity, and allows the audience to catch up with Jabber's at times frenetic speech. There are moments when the text runs Tennyson and Thompson together in such a way that it's hard to know which is which."