At the funeral of renowned conductor Pauletta Kripalova-Canti, the absence of her famous mezzo-soprano friend Alyssa is noted by several of Alyssa’s students, who summon the courage to query their instructor about it as a master class is about to begin. The answer is in a script they enact, as this framing device gives way to a story of indifference and betrayal.
Susan Dworkin’s multilayered play examines the too-common conflict between art and regressive politics. It’s not a comfortable journey: The ugliness of the conflict is meted out slowly, setting up a quick epiphany that climaxes the 85-minute, intermissionless piece. It’s also presented in a way that keeps us questioning, keeps us guessing. The students speak with contemporary tropes, yet the young men sport wing collars and black ties.
Alyssa speaks with an eastern European accent, which she maintains as her story unfolds, but the students—who play the roles of her parents and others—retain their today’s-America sounds, especially in the case of Kripalova-Canti, known as Pow (the radiant Elizabeth Donnelly), whose speech is almost jarringly filled with valley-girlish sounds and phrases.
Pow and Alyssa remain great friends even as their career paths diverge and Alyssa begins to find her fame. It’s no accident that Verdi’s Aïda offers her an early success: She shares with the character Amneris a blindsiding passion, which in Alyssa’s case allows her to ignore the oppressive regime into which her once great friend is insinuating herself.
With a diva’s entrance and a larger-than-life personality played throughout, Alyssa is a star turn for Eileen Schuyler. The small world of regional theater has put me on stage with her more than once, so it’s with great relief that I can report that she packs a lifetime of experience into what must have been an exhausting tour-de-force to pull off performance after performance. She never leaves the stage, and must portray her character from childhood on through the aging singer we meet at the top of the show.
Erin Ouelette plays the student who impersonates Alyssa’s mother, giving the young actress the challenge of effectively age-switching with Schuyler, which she did with impressive ease. As student-turned-Alyssa’s father, Ryan Winkles fell a little short of conveying the authority of a temperamental choirmaster, but I suspect he was trying to underscore the complexity of a secret that’s soon revealed.
And Rylan Morsbach morphed from pop-singing student to military officer to doomed musician with ease, seeming at times like a utility player (but a very skilled one) called in to fill plot holes.
Dworkin packs much material into a relatively brief span, with the play’s different narrative levels spread over several locations that were quickly suggested by a few agile set pieces, including a pair of columns that doubled as a cathedral interior and the Aïda set—a credit to scenic designer Juliana Haubrich.
As it is a music-intensive play, sound designer Brad Berridge deftly chose classical pieces to resonate with the scenes, as well as vintage and current popular music to evince the span of decades.
“Talent cannot thrive in a democracy,” we’re told early on, but as the politics of this unnamed place at this unspecified time grow more repressive, the declaration that “the muse has no political discretion” resonates with more poignant overtones.
Wilhelm Furtwängler continued to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic during the Nazi regime, an issue examined with depth and complexity in Ronald Harwood’s play Taking Sides, and I longed for a similar development of the character of Kripalova-Canti, who remained a two-dimensional opponent.
Even the character of Alyssa succumbed to triteness with lines like, “If you hate someone for years, are you responsible for their death?”
Director Kristen van Ginhoven kept the pacing brisk and deftly maneuvered our attention around the busy stage, creating unexpected pictures with surprising emotional payoffs, as when the destruction of a social gathering was suggested by the slow-motion overturning of few chairs.
Shorn of its framing device, The Old Mezzo might deliver a more focused message. As it is, it certainly has current politics on its side. Last year, for instance, Florida governor and Tea Party automaton Rick Scott announced his intention to inflate tuition fees for liberal arts students at the state’s public universities—to help fund, he said, “more important” degree programs in practical sciences. It’s a form of anti-intellectual fascism that sadly reminds us of the universality of the dilemma Dworkin’s play portrays. “Mezzo” means “middle,” and the old middle is where so many of us comfortably settle with blinders firmly in place.