Louisville fans of playwright Sarah Ruhl are having a great March. Their party continues as the third Ruhl production this month hits the stage at the Henry Clay when The Liminal Playhouse presents “The Melancholy Play: A Contemporary Farce.”
Recent Ruhl productions include Looking for Lilith’s “Orlando” and Ruhl’s newest work, “For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday,” which just had its world premiere at Actors Theatre’s Humana Festival. Sadly, “Orlando” has finished its run, but Louisville theater-goers still have the rare opportunity to see Ruhl’s first play and her latest — all in the same weekend.
The Liminal Playhouse is in its first season, but the creative team is made up of Louisville theater vets. For “Melancholy Play,” the director’s chair is filled by Tad Chitwood, a mainstay of Louisville’s independent theater.
Chitwood says the play intrigued him because of its difficulty.
“I really liked it because it’s hard. It’s one of those things that it would be easy to do wrong,” he tells Insider, adding that artists should choose difficult work. “If you look at it and go, ‘OK, I’m scared,’ that’s a good sign.”
The difficulties of the play start with the need to find an onstage musician — a cellist who is present throughout the action. And he’s not just accompaniment, says Chitwood. “His character has a name and is an integral part, though he doesn’t speak much.”
In Liminal’s production, that role is filled by producing director Richard McGrew, a cellist and composer whose normal duties for the company tend to be more focused on the business side, though he doesn’t see that as an incongruity.
“People talk, (and) ask if someone is a math and science person, or an arts and humanities person,” says McGrew. “I’ve never made that distinction. To me, it’s all knowledge.”
Chitwood has glowing praise for McGrew’s work in the show.
“He’s got one of the hardest roles in the play because he doesn’t say anything and he’s always there — he’s always in the moment,” he says. Pretty much any actor worth their salt would admit that, sometimes, just being on stage and being truly present is one of the hardest things. Or, as Chitwood puts it, “Don’t just do something, stand there! That’s very difficult.”
In addition to acting and playing the cello for the production, McGrew is the show’s musical director and composer. Though the script has lyrics and asks for a cellist, it doesn’t offer music — just suggestions. McGrew says that challenges both sides of his brain.
“People think of music as just an art, but there’s a real science to it,” he explains. “Music theory is really mathematical.”
McGrew cites a specific passage in the stage directions for being his jumping off point as the play’s composer.
“For the final song, (Ruhl) says this is a cross between liturgical chant and madrigals, and that’s exactly my favorite way to write music,” says McGrew, adding, “My favorite class when I was a music major was 16th century counterpoint.”
He says his influences include 16th-century luminaries like Palestrina and Gesualdo, but also adds praise for the B-52’s. “The two women will sing in unison for a while, then break into harmonies — and not just thirds, but really interesting harmonies — because their music is much more sophisticated than people give them credit for.”
In addition to sophisticated music, “Melancholy Play” deals with complicated emotions. After all, Chitwood points out, Ruhl started out as a poet before jumping into playwriting.
“She’ll turn on a dime,” he explains. “The writing is not all one thing. You’d think since it’s a farce, it’s all set up to get nothing but laughs, but things turn and there are these moments of beautiful poetry.”
The play itself begins with a defense of melancholy as both feeling and concept.
“The vibe has a Medieval and Renaissance feel that kinda says, ‘Don’t worry about Freud and those boys. Don’t try to redact it into something easily approachable,’” says Chitwood.
McGrew agrees: “There is a quote from Victor Hugo who said melancholy is the happiness of being sad. (Ruhl) really explores that in this play.”
With a solid cast, a seasoned director and a complex script, “The Melancholy Play” should provide an excellent end to Liminal Playhouse’s inaugural season. The company has just announced their second season, which includes Jennifer Haley’s “The Nether,” David Ives’ “Venus in Fur” and Donald Margulies’ “Time Stands Still.”
“The Melancholy Play” runs March 24-April 3 at the Henry Clay, 604 S. Third St. Tickets are $18 in advance or $20 at the door.