BWW Reviews: THE GIGLI CONCERT Makes Sweet Music in Toronto
"The singer is the voice of the subconscious self."
So utters the main character in Tom Murphy's famous play, The Gigli Concert, now on at Toronto's Young Centre for the Performing Arts through May 14th. Produced by Soulpepper Theatre Company, the line is key to understanding this epic yet intimate play. Though occasionally challenging, Nancy Palk's production is an ultimately rewarding evening of theater for what it reveals of the human capacities for healing and connection.
The play, which debuted in 1983 at Dublin's famed Abbey Theatre, is a fascinating look at men, women, ambition, love, loss and our place in the universe - heady (and hearty) themes for a play that features only three people. Longtime Soulpepper actor and co-founder Diego Matamoros is JPW King, an English self-help quack doctor who calls himself a "dynamatologist." Irish-born but raised in England, his life is in total disarray when a mysterious man (Stuart Hughes) who's made millions in construction walks into his office, seeking advice. The Irishman, we discover, is mentally unstable, prone to violence, and wildly emotional; he is also obsessed with the Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli. Through a series of daily "sessions" (and between trysts with his married lover Mona, played by Irene Poole), King and the man come to form a bond, sharing secrets and leading to the man's sudden cure; King attempts suicide but survives, and makes an affirming choice at the play's end.
Soulpepper prides itself on the community it has formed since its founding in 1998; its theatre-family is a part of the cast as well as crew here. Company co-founders Diego Matamoros and Stuart Hughes star whilea Nancy Palk directs, and recent Soulpepper Academy graduate Ken Mackenzie designs sets and costumes. The combination is magical. MacKenzie's designs paint a fantastically shambolic portrait of King's life, pointing up a perennial woe that is characterized by a room nearly drained of all color, whose drab shapes take on new forms as the dappled rays of the setting sun come through the dusty blinds. The Gigli Concert perfectly evokes the drabness of late 1970s/early 80s Dublin in all its shoddy glory: the clunky old phone, the plug-in record player, the ratty sofa, the buttoned-down, bleached-out clothing; everything points at a survival ethos that perfectly reflects not only the characters but the world in which they are forced to operate. Steven Hawkins' lighting is just as keen, warming the atmosphere and establishing an intimate atmosphere as the two men relate over the course of the Man's sessions.
Intimacy is a strong undercurrent in this work, not just between humans, but between humans and inanimate things. The way Matamoros raises and lowers the set blinds, for instance, is a masterclass in gestural elegance and soulful intention. Likewise, the relationships the characters share with music is of central importance to the work. The play includes a medley of opera aria favorites, including cuts from Verdi's Rigoletto (its famous quartet), Boito's Mefistofele, Meyerbeer's L'Africaine, and Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. Opera buffs will appreciate the deftness of musical timing, and the ways in which musical choices illuminate characters and situations.The second-act aria, "Tu che a Dio spiegasti l'ali," for instance, is taken from a scene in Lucia where the male protagonist realizes, to his extreme grief, that he can never be with the woman he loves. In The Gigli Concert, King is presented as "singing" this very piece, at the moment he is at the lowest point of despair; it is deeply affecting, not only in and of itself, but for the way it renders the first act's sometimes-slow pacing worth every syllable.
Murphy's script is full of contrasts (English/ Irish; professional / unprofessional; childhood / adulthood; fantasy / reality), leaving the dialogue heavily flavored with Cartesian dialectics; it's initially a challenge to build a rapport with Murphy's characters amidst the wordplay, the intricate details, and the theorizing. Actor and Soulpepper co-founder Nancy Palk directs with delicacy and eye for detail, drawing out mundane moments that prove to be shot through with emotion. She carefully finds the beating, bleeding heart of Murphy's work, using powerful theatrical elements and a knowing sense of timing to create a moving portrait of a lonely world filled with lonely people. As Mona, Irene Poole is a warm, likeable presence, her interpretation a touching, flesh-and-blood portrait of a woman at a true (and very frightening) crossroads in her life. Hughes brings a barrel-chested Irish machismo that is perfectly suited to the role. His brusque physicality contrasts sharply with his emotional revelations. Matamoros gives a moving, carefully-pitched portrayal of a man who, much like his lover, has hard choices to make, ones he doesn't want to face, let alone act on. He prefers the pure experience that comes in singing.
It is through this "performance" that King is pushed into another place that ultimately inspires action, leading to the play's inevitable conclusion. As Murphy himself noted in 2009, "I got to the point where I actually couldn't bear to listen to singers because I so envied the expressive power that music can possess." In The Gigli Concert, we get to hear the voice of the "subconscious self" that singers express -- and we discover that voice not through anger, hostility, or blame, but through vulnerability, the capacity to heal, and the power of connection.
Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann.