Sunday, April 13, 2008

Review - The Piano Tuner - Live Action Set - 5 stars

“And then what happened?”
“They lived happily ever after.”
“And then what happened?”

The friend who accompanied me to “The Piano Tuner” had never seen or heard of Live Action Set before. Trying to describe the group’s style - a mix of standard theater, dance, clowning, music, and physical theater to produce an ensemble-created performance (just for starters) - sort of defies language sometimes. Words seem inadequate. One almost has to see it and take it in to understand it. When the actors left the stage after their final bows and the applause finally died down and the house lights came up, I turned to my friend and smiled, saying,

“And that’s what they do.”

In response, my friend said, “I’m going to be thinking about that all night.”

Sadly, “The Piano Tuner” is only on stage for a single weekend. It opened Thursday, April 10th and closes Sunday, April 13th. So if you’re just looking for a quick answer to the question, Should I go?, the answer is an emphatic yes. (Basic information on location, times, and tickets is at the bottom, just scroll down.) “The Piano Tuner” is, hands down, the best thing Live Action Set has done since their breakout production, “Please Don’t Blow Up Mr. Boban” three years ago. Other things they’ve done have been interesting, or good, or interesting *and* good, but not this good. “The Piano Tuner” is going to rank up there as one of Live Action Set’s very best.

About halfway through the performance, I was feeling pretty confident as both audience member and reviewer. It all seemed pretty straightforward. Figured I could sum it up neatly in a couple of sentences in terms of plot and thematic concerns. Then suddenly,
everything and everyone onstage started opening up in unexpected ways. The whole thing started blossoming, new layers were unfolding one after another. Popping up in a back corner of my now over-stimulated brain was the thought, "Holy crap, they've done it again."

"The Piano Tuner" starts out as a comedy/satire of the nuclear family before the nuclear age, when progress was measured by chopping down forests, phones were not mobile, an entertainment center was a single-slide projector with individual images changed by hand, and everything was powered by a relatively new wonder known as electricity.
Father (Ryan Hill) has been so efficient at his work that he's completed his mission and done himself out of a job. Not answering the phone or opening the mail isn't the effective financial strategy he hoped it would be for keeping the creditors at bay. A man with no occupation or purpose to give his life meaning can be a dangerous thing to have around the house. Mother (Katie Melby) becomes obsessed with keeping the family piano in tune as some sort of bellwether of good fortune. Father and Mother's two-and-a-half children, Alistair (Galen Treuer), Ramona (Kimberly Richardson), and Ibsen (Eric Sharp), try to keep things upbeat and orderly in their way. But the troubles of the parents have a way of trickling down to the offspring.

Enter the Piano Tuner (Tim Cameron), a man who inadvertently bewitches the women and children in the family simply by virtue of being present and attentive, two things that Father is not. Romantic notions coalesce around music which invades the home in the voice and notes and shapes of an Ideal Woman (mezzo soprano Laurel Cameron) and Ideal Piano Tuner (music director/pianist Paul Kovacovic, in tails no less) upstage and in
view at a grand piano beyond the bounds of the family living room. "The Piano Tuner" uses comedy and music, plus a smattering of menace and a whiff of tragedy, to peel back the labels on things like love and family and hope and progress and keeping up appearances. The Live Action Set ensemble pokes around in the corners to uncover the details that reveal new variations on familiar themes.

Live Action Set as a group has been trying to find the right mix as they explore new ways of working, and new subject matter, and I think, with "The Piano Tuner," they may have finally nailed it. Hearing about "The Piano Tuner" ahead of time, and then seeing it, were two very different things. For me, a Live Action Set show has always meant, in some measure, seeing Noah Bremer, Megan Odell, Galen Treuer, and Vanessa Voskuil on stage together. Often with collaborators around them, but always there in plain sight, front and center. The weird, and great, thing about "The Piano Tuner" is that two of the central four aren't onstage at all, and a third is only onstage in a supporting role and never speaks, and yet I still felt, "Yup, this is a Live Action Set production." With Megan Odell in the director’s chair and Noah Bremer as assistant director, the LAS sensibility is firmly in place as a guide. The Twin Cities theater community being as rich as it is, there are many equally skilled ensemble theaters creating new work collaboratively around town. So “The Piano Tuner” has a great network of artists to draw on, which it does. Ryan Hill heads up Sandbox Theatre, Katie Melby is a founder of 3 Sticks Theatre Company, Eric Sharp is one of the founding members of Perpetual Motion Theatre Company, and Kimberly Richardson and Tim Cameron between them have worked prior to this with - among others - Jon Ferguson, Civic Stage and LAS itself. So all of these artists are more than game, and able, to step into the Live Action Set process. They not only become part of it, they enrich it with their own varied experiences working in the same vein, but different styles. It’s like fielding the theatrical equivalent of an all-star team, people who don’t normally get to play together for more than one game, but when things click, it’s a hell of a game to watch.

It would be possible to fill many pages dissecting all the various bits of poetic dialogue, visual set pieces, and stunning physical moves these people pull off, but in the end it would just be reducing something to words on a page than really needs to be seen living and breathing to have the proper impact. So I’ll just give a nod to a handful, to give you a sampling of what you’ll have in store when you go - and you should, go.

There comes a point when Father sets an impossible task for his three children, just to reassert his dominance over them. They can’t win, and still they try. All of this is represented as some pretty intense physical work between characters, executed with precision by Ryan Hill as Father, and Kimberly Richardson and Eric Sharp as the two kids who fail the test, and a determined Galen Treuer who will - not - give - up.

The music, and lack of it, is always highly charged. Occasionally it serves as a soundtrack, but most often, the piano from Paul Kovacovic and the vocals from Laurel Cameron allow the repressed emotional world of the other characters to open up, to yearn for more, to even reach out for it. The Piano Tuner goes from not being able to hear a note coming out of the piano, even though Mother insists it sounds awful, to hearing exactly what the woman of the house hears, being able to satisfy both her need for beauty and his own. (“An instrument like this holds a great deal of tension,” he says. Which of course takes the prize for understatement of the evening.)

The dialogue is not standard theatrical fare. The story is built more on physicality and stage pictures than words. The words which are present are always loaded with multiple meanings, a load that only gets heavier as the play progresses and the stakes get higher. Each time the Piano Tuner comes work on the instrument, Father gives him payment the tuner feels is too generous.

“This is too much.”
“You’ve done enough.”

As the Piano Tuner and Mother grow closer with each visit, the connection is not lost on Father. Father also sees his own children gravitating toward the Piano Tuner. Each repetition of those two lines as the man of the house sees the intruder to the door holds greater meaning for each man. Tim Cameron as the Piano Tuner and Ryan Hill as Father go from strangers to potential adversaries with very little other dialogue passing between them.

When the family furniture is gone, the children get chalk and draw on the floor to outline where the walls and doors and furniture all used to be. The ways the family plays along with this gesture, respecting the boundaries outlined, pretending the chairs and loveseat are still there, are both sweet and a little sad. When the line of the wall is later defied in an attempt to escape an unpleasant reality, it has genuine impact, and a note of grace about it.

The combination of set and lighting design by Paul Whittaker - particularly toward the end, when the contrast of light and dark, color and shadow, is more stark - is gorgeous.

While everyone in the cast is uniformly wonderful, I have to take a moment and state that Kimberly Richardson and Katie Melby are starting to freak me out. This is, oddly enough, a good thing, though nonetheless unnerving. Even though Kimberly has created a couple of my favorite lovelorn misfits on stage in recent years, and I have seen Katie in several works by 3 Sticks Theatre Company, for the life of me, I don’t recognize them. They disappear so completely into whatever character they are portraying, personal identity seems to slide right off them. I meet them in offstage situations and introduce myself and they must gently remind me we’ve already met. I’ll be watching a production like this one - with Melby as Mother and Richardson as daughter Ramona - then look at the program and see their names and find myself thinking, “Really? That’s them? Wow.” So, hat’s off to you both, ladies, for being such good chameleons that I’m constantly off balance.

And since my friend mentioned it first, kudos to Noah Bremer for turning on the sexy in this one, as the wordless head of the moving crew. Not just clown sexy, or adorable dorky sexy, which he’s done before, but full-on “I’m not sure if I’m safe around this guy” sexy. My friend is a new convert to Noah’s fan club. Me, I always knew he had it in him. Even in a supporting role, Bremer leaves quite an impression.

An experience this rich, I could go on (and already have) but I want to get this posted and do my bit to spread the word. Though I hope “The Piano Tuner” comes back, and soon, for now, time grows short.

Very Highly Recommended.

The Piano Tuner” by Live Action Set still has one more performance at the Southern Theater (1420 Washington Avenue South in Minneapolis) this Sunday, 4/13 (tonight) at 7pm. Tickets are $20 (and worth every penny). You can get reservations and more information at or by calling 612-340-1725. You can learn more about Live Action Set and how to support their good work at

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