Act one, scene two, of Hamlet begins with jubilation. King Claudius and Queen Gertrude celebrate their marriage. Rhinish wine spills from gleaming goblets. Bright colors swirl around the stage. Over in a corner — usually downstage right — a black smudge darkens the scene. It’s Prince Hamlet, staring at the floor with a “dropping eye.”
The scene ends with gloom. Alone, Hamlet speaks: “How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of the world…. ’Tis an unweeded garden that grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature/Possess it merely.” Whether Hamlet is sane or mad as Max is open to interpretation. One thing is certain: he is melancholic.
In Shakespeare’s day, melancholy was a malaise beyond sadness. Excessive black bile secretions from the spleen dried one up and resulted, according to Robert Burton — whose The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) is a thousand-page treatise on the subject — in “a pessimistic sense of inadequacy.” The poet John Keats called it the “wakeful anguish of the soul.” Although it could lead to near paralysis, some found the despondent condition appealing; one saw through the illusions of the world. In her The Melancholy Play, Sarah Ruhl finds it sexy.
The passing of the torch. The late Maria Irene Fornes — she died October 30, age 88 — was one of the great playwrights of her era. She taught Paula Vogel (How I Learned to Drive), who said, “In the work of every American playwright at the end of the 20th century, there are only two stages: before she has read Maria Irene Fornes and after.” Vogel, in turn, taught Sarah Ruhl at Brown University. San Diego has embraced Ruhl, with stagings of The Clean House, Dead Man’s Cell Phone, and In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play), and others. The Melancholy Play was one of her earliest efforts (2002), which she revised in 2012. But even in the original version, you can see the influences of Fornes and Vogel, along with a seriously impish urge to take theater beyond comfortable limits. Even the unappealing title takes a chance: prepare for gloom, all you ticket buyers. But the play is funny, witty, and as absurd as Ionesco.
Tilly, a bank teller, is melancholic. She sees the end in a beginning. To her, spring flowers are sad because their beauty will fade and they will die. She can find poetry in an empty room and a virtue in bad teeth (“You look old before you’re old”). Since melancholia is a dry condition, her mouth feels like she just ate an almond — and she never feels full.
For this and other reasons, to Tilly, “cheerful people are the worst sort.” They’re so full of themselves they drive her nuts. They question nothing; their positive attitude won’t let them. If they saw Star Wars they couldn’t accept the Dark Side of the Force. It doesn’t equate with their chipper picture.
Happy people, however, find Tilly appealing beyond measure. Lorenzo, a flamboyant psychiatrist, is convinced he’s a master of “unfeeling.” When they first meet, he says she’s proud of her melancholy, “a little vain, even.” Not long after, he falls topsy-turvy in love. Tilly’s melancholia also nabs hairdresser Frances and nurse Joan, a heretofore allegedly gleeful couple. Throw in Frank, a tailor, and the play becomes Invasion of the Happy-Snatchers.
Why? Tilly thinks she suffers “so well and so often,” that “when a stranger sees me cry they see a river they haven’t swum in.” Or maybe a melancholic allows an ego to feel superior: to “love someone and also pity them”? Or, it could just be that, by comparison, happiness, as one says, looks like a “sweaty pig”?
But just when the play looks like it has hit a cul-de-sac, Ruhl makes the kind of move Fornes and Vogle would commend: Tilly falls bonkers in love with Frank. She has such a joy-attack that the others think she’s a “monster.”
Ruhl makes a second leap late in the play that recalls Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist antics. Frances becomes such a dry melancholic she turns into an almond. Can they save her? The ending’s a mite silly, but by then, Inner Mission Productions' work carries the day.
Ruhl subtitled Melancholy “a contemporary farce.” Expect frantic movement and seven slamming doors, right? But Ruhl has a note for actors: “Don’t be afraid of sincere melodrama.” Okay, so a “melancholic farce.” But that’s an oxymoron. How does one stage this brand new genre?
For an answer, see InnerMission’s fun show. Instead of doors, designer Ron Logan hangs white, empty picture frames in front of soft pastel pink and green walls. When not performing, the actors pose behind them. Energy’s more in the mind than the body. Mood-swings rule the piece: the happys giddy, the melancholics cobalt blue.
Director Carla Nell deserves credit for staging such an unprecedented genre. As does her game, committed cast for performing in uncharted territory as if they had an atlas. Hannah Logan does stellar work as bipolar Tilly. Patrick Mayuyu, Scott Striegel, Vanessa Dinning (also plays cello), and Cristyn Chandler (a new, welcome face) do standout work as well.
The show must close this weekend. See it, and you might leave the theater humming, “Come to me, my melancholy baby.”
The Melancholy Play, by Sarah Ruhl
Inner Mission Productions, Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard, University Heights
Directed by Carla Nell; cast: Patrick Mayuyu, Cristyn Chandler, Scott Striegel, Hannah Logan, Vanessa Dinning; scenic design, Ron Logan, costumes, Kym Pappas, lighting, Robert Malave, sound, Carla Nell, musical direction, Vanessa Dinning
Playing through November 24; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 pm