In storytelling the audience is part of the deal. Like the Zen koan about the musician who gave away his instrument when his best listener died, there’s no point in telling a story without a listener. The audience creates the story along with the storyteller, through their imagination and their response. (Lots of people have said this, so I won’t cite.) In a play, where the actors recreate the (author’s) story in front of their audience, a performance can zing with reciprocity. Which is what happened in the KTO production of Love Song, a play by John Kolvenbach, performed last month at InScape by actors Elizabeth Deutsch, Dara Lillis, Ryan Sanders, and Lauren Skelton.* I’m going to talk about what Love Song meant to me as part of the audience, as these actors and director Jenni Taggart presented it.
Love Song looks at different aspects of love in the relationships between four people: a troubled, lonely man named Beane (Ryan Sanders) and his protective, high-strung sister Joan (Elizabeth Deutsch); Joan and her laid-back husband Harry (Dara Lillis); and Beane and the mysterious Molly (Lauren Skelton), a young woman who breaks into Beane’s apartment. The play centers around Beane although he is the least engaged with the outside world. Initially he even disengages from the audience.
In what may be called scene 0, before the lights go down and the show formally begins, Beane comes onstage to sit at a table and read in his empty apartment; he is so good at ignoring the audience that the audience goes back to talking among themselves. (Beane doesn’t want to see us or to be seen and we comply.) In the beginning of the play he seems to have no relationship to anyone except his sister Joan, and through her to her husband Harry.
Joan is a responsible, take-charge kind of person, but not entirely at ease with this role she can never set aside (she drinks to relieve the stress). While she may be harsh with passive-aggressive interns at her workplace, she is fiercely protective of her reclusive, unhappy brother. Joan’s husband Harry doesn’t understand why Beane is so withdrawn; to clear up his own confusion he wants to give Beane a psychological test from a magazine. Joan argues against this – she is willing to be without answers for her brother’s behavior – but Beane wants to take the test.
Although Beane’s response to the test question made perfect sense to this part of the audience (A baby in a box? How does it breathe?), the scene of Beane sitting in his apartment with the wall moving in to crush him and a roaring sound the only thing he can hear convinces us that the man has problems. Even without using the cultural construct of ‘mental illness’ it is clear that Beane has gone totally inward, and that his inner world is not just barren but malevolent.
Then Beane meets Molly, a thief in the night. She steals his clothes, his cup, and his spoon, since he has little else, but she brings great gifts. She is a truth-teller and a sensualist, and what she gives Beane is a way into the world.
* Since Elizabeth is my neighbor and I saw the play twice, the actor/audience reciprocity became an ongoing conversation. I’d also like to thank Liv Browning and Alicia Woods, who were in the audience as well, for their insights.