Kristen van Ginhoven, co-founder of WAM Theatre and director of The Old Mezzo, told me recently, “It’s a big risk, a new play and all. But may as well risk big if one is going to risk!” Indeed, WAM itself is a pretty daring venture. Taking its inspiration from Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s international best-seller Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, the three-year old troupe has a double mission: to create more professional opportunities for women in theater, and to give tangible support, through shared box-office receipts, to organizations working to improve the lives of women and girls locally and around the world. This production’s beneficiary is Berkshire-based Shout Out Loud Productions, which uses film and art to raise awareness of global sex trafficking, abuse and poverty.
Susan Dworkin’s The Old Mezzo is a world premiere, performed at the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield. Told in flashbacks, it traces the early career of an elderly, world-famous operatic diva, known reverently as Miss Alyssa. She tells her story during a master class with a quartet of young singers, who step into the characters in her narrative. Set in an unnamed (and unnecessarily fictionalized) Central European country at the time of a fascist coup, the piece pits high art and free expression against political repression and power.
The young mezzo-soprano’s blossoming gift is encouraged by her mother, a classical music groupie who married a brilliant, temperamental choir master to give cover to his homosexuality and her own affairs. Alyssa’s best friend, Pow, is also a gifted musician. Both girls are inspired, almost inhabited, by a Muse that they experience as a physical presence, at once visceral and godlike. Pow’s ambition to be a great orchestral conductor thrives through her willingness to go along and get along with the totalitarian regime, while Alyssa resists compromise as her career languishes and her family and friends are decimated.
Van Ginhoven’s deft, fluid production uses a few rolling set pieces, including a grand piano and two enormous classical columns, to sketch out the locations, from kitchen to concert hall.
The actors themselves don’t sing—at least, not till the end, and that very beautifully. Instead, we hear recorded excerpts of famous operas and oratorios, not lip-synched (thank goodness) but suggested in frozen tableaux.
The engaging visual production and five strong performances help to overcome the script’s weaknesses, which include narrative lapses and occasionally flat dialogue. In the title role, Eileen Schuyler does a nice job of recapturing the old woman’s memory of her girlish zeal and naiveté without stooping to girlish imitation. As the students who enact Miss Alyssa’s story, Erin Ouellette and Shakespeare & Company member Ryan Winkles are effective and moving as the two parents; and Valley native Rylan Morsbach does a couple of convincing turns, as an American boy who falls for Alyssa and her ravishing voice, and a meek piano tuner who falls prey to government thugs.
As Pow, a conflicted figure torn between personal loyalty and professional ambition, Elizabeth Donnelly is poignant and compelling. Pow is The Old Mezzo’s truly complex character, and it’s a shame the play doesn’t center on her instead of the more generic title role.•
Through Oct. 28, Berkshire Museum, 39 South Street, Pittsfield, wamtheatre.com.
Contact Chris Rohmann at StageStruck@crocker.com.