Belly laughs rang through Balch Arena Theatre on Thursday during a performance of Pen, Paint, and Pretzels’ 2017 spring major. One could consider this an unexpected response to a production titled “Melancholy Play.” Although the play, written by Sarah Ruhl, deals with heavy topics like sadness and depression, the absurdities and witticisms of the script had audience members in stitches.
The characters in “Melancholy Play” are delightfully melodramatic. Senior Justin Sullivan played Lorenzo the Unfeeling, a flamboyant psychologist who falls in love with his client, Tilly. Lorenzo’s backstory is simultaneously silly and tragic: As a child, his mother abandoned him at a sweet shop in an “unspecified European location.” Later in life, Lorenzo moved to Illinois, where the story takes place. Sullivan brought the character to life with an ambiguous, vaguely Italian accent, exaggerated facial expressions and over-the-top physical gestures.
The scenery was pleasantly simplistic. A black couch, a therapy chaise, two door frames and floating stained-glass windows created the play’s atmosphere. Each prop and piece of furniture was used efficiently and to its maximum capacity.
The play centers around Tilly (sophomore Abby Schmidt), a bank teller suffering from acute melancholy. Tilly is a delightfully childish character who seems to derive pleasure from her own sadness, feeding off the attention it brings her. Schmidt’s interpretation of the character came across as an apt mix between an old movie star and a Disney princess.
“There’s a word in Japanese for being sad in the springtime — a whole word just for being sad about how pretty the flowers are and how soon they’re going to die — I can’t remember the word,” Tilly says in one of her most captivating lines. Tilly has several similar lines throughout the play. This trope of untranslatable words that are always on the tip of her tongue is effective in reminding the audience of the frustrating limits of the English language.
In addition to Lorenzo, three other characters fall in love with Tilly’s beautiful melancholy. Frank (sophomore Shaan Merchant) is an unhappy tailor who becomes Tilly’s boyfriend. Frances (junior Phoebe Cavise) and Joan (first-year Sophia Balsamo) are a lesbian couple who compete for Tilly’s affections.
The plot’s turning point occurs on Tilly’s birthday, when she discovers happiness and her melancholy melts away. The other characters, who love her primarily for her sadness, are distraught by this development. In a surprising twist, Frances becomes so lethargic and depressed that she turns into an almond. Almonds are used as a motif throughout the play as a subtle reference to the amygdala, an almond-shaped brain structure responsible for the experience of emotions.
The other characters, baffled by Frances’ transformation, receive an anonymous note explaining that melancholic citizens in Illinois are turning into almonds. For the remainder of the play, as the characters attempt to turn Frances back into a human, they discover other ridiculous revelations, including the fact that Frank and Frances are long-lost twins separated at birth.
“Overall, this is a play about relationships. Although the world of these characters is not like ours, we have much in common with them. The ways in which these people treat each other, love each other, know each other, think they know each other, fight each other, lose each other, smell each other and save each other are at the core of this play,” sophomore Ethan Whitman wrote in his Director’s Note in the play’s program.
Whitman, the cast and the crew did an excellent job of showcasing the inner mechanics of this story. Producing such surreal, bizarre material was a creative risk, and it definitely paid off.