Theatre About Music
Lovers of ‘Love’ rejoice: 69 Love Scenes conjures magic of Magnetic Fields
I’ll be honest. After seeing the first incarnation of Gnap! Theatre’s 69 Love Scenes at Salvage Vanguard last year, I was a bit hesitant of what to expect of the latest full-scale relaunch of the script in SV's larger space.
As a devotee of Stephen Merritt’s music, I was curious how a playwright has the hubris to match the brilliance of a certified genius who spent years developing these odes to the pain and flight and heartbreak and redemption of finding and keeping love?
(If you haven’t listened to this entire collection yet, people, do yourself a favor. Wait until it’s raining outside and wrap yourself in a blanket and get a journal, a bottle of wine and a kitten.)
Luckily, this time around, the responsibility of translating Merritt’s poetry into dramatic form was shared amongst a team of creative, able-minded folks who likewise share a lasting personal connetion to this album. So they weren’t going to present this work hastily.
Director Avimaan Syam’s notes in the program indicate he’s well aware of the impossible challenge of reinterpreting Merritt’s already near-perfect collection into an equally-compelling play. “It’s all these contradictions that drove the creation of this show,” he states.
Joining Syam in the writing duties were Gnap! Theatre’s Artistic Director Shannon McCormick, writer and performer Monique Daviau, and comedians Kerri Lendo, Caitlin Reilly Schave, Curtis Luciani and Erika May McNichol.
Together, the unique blend of perspectives successfully highlight the strengths (and a few of the the bad habits) of Austin’s various theater and comedy communities.
The effect is ultimately a terrific thematic mix of emotional payoffs concerning characters that come and go between scenes. Sometimes humor gets emphasized over the simple, quiet silences. But when the actors commit to honesty, they squarely connect.
Each scene corresponds with at least one song off the album, either projected on screen or creatively in the set. Part of the fun for fans is to check them off internally as the show progresses.
The biggest problem with covering so much ground in this project is that sometimes the best songs don’t get the full development they deserve due to time constraints (and copywrights). Not being able to hear all the songs dampened the effect just a twinge.
The show begins with an elderly couple dancing to the beautiful “Time Enough for Rocking When We’re Old.” Maggie Wilhite and Elizabeth Brammer play the sweet old couple undisturbed by the nonsense of the busy world around them. The couple continues to kvetch as the show progresses, but their quiet moments are the most enjoyable.
Adrienne Mishler also plays a lovelorn singer who loses her partner (played by the tiny powerhouse Gricelda Silva) and burns her way through several of the album’s best songs trying to win her back.
Despite the successful but overwhleming slant toward comedy, the emotional heart of the show lands eventually on the shoulders of Joel Osborne as he searches for the actual "Book of Love" to reveal its secrets.
Crushed by his unrequited advances to scene-stealer Courtney Hopkin, he eventually finds the sweetest, most honest form of love from the equally sincere Brammer. Their union at the end makes the whole two hours prior worth the journey.
Merritt’s album offers as much exploration of sexuality and one-night stands as long-term commitment and soulmates. The show translates this into a pansexual playground where literally anything goes.
It is an explicit, unapologetically sexual show for sure. Half the cast is in their undergutchies many times, and a sparkly strap-on dildo is a recurring character.
Sure, you’re not going to love ALL of the pieces. The metaphors can be a bit heavy at times. (It’s about LOVE, of course there’s going to be hearts and guitars and strap-ons!) But if a piece doesn’t work, the magic of this ensemble setup means you only have to wait two minutes for the next piece.
Most importantly, the overall wistful, joyful, melancholic feel of the albums is achieved in this evening of theatre. The script somehow encapsulates that feeling and sends you off feeling nostalgic.
The final shakedown left me happy and hopeful, satisfied by the endless buffet of theatrical tapas tossed my way. I didn't love everything, but I'd come back for seconds in the future.
The wildly mixed demographics in the packed crowd conveyed a similar satisfied tone. What I thought might be a show just for fellow Magnetic Fields lovers is in fact a show for lovers of all persuasions.
69 Love Scenes plays at Salvage Vanguard Theatre on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays July 8 - 23 at 8pm. Tickets are $10.00.