Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Darkness to Light: Conscientious, Admirable and Very Long
Also see Bob's review of A Murder, A Mystery, and A Wedding
In textbook fashion, Darkness to Light wends through Beethoven's entire life. It begins in 1827 in Beethoven's Vienna home when he is on his death bed. He relates his life story to Gerhard, his best friend's adolescent son, who has been left to tend to him. He relates that he was born in 1770. We meet young Ludwig at the age of ten when Johann, his abusive alcoholic father, foolishly brings him to a scheduled meeting with the King of Bonn. His father expects to be promoted to the position of court Kapellmeister, which was once held by his own father. Instead, the King informs Johann that he is bringing in an outsider, a musician from the court in Vienna, for the job. Ludwig's father's abusive reaction costs him his position at the court. Johann immediately takes Ludwig out of school and arranges for the musical prodigy to give his first piano concert. It is with great reluctance that Ludwig's jealous father allows him to study with new court Kapellmeister Neefe.
Darkness to Light diligently continues to chronicle a plethora of events concerning Beethoven's musical genius and troubled life. Author Andy Shapiro depicts his move to Vienna at the age of 17 where he seeks the instruction of Mozart only to have to return temporarily to Bonn because of the death of his mother. Then there is Beethoven's support of and devotion to his younger brother Carl; his revengeful treatment of his hated father; the failure of his relationship with Juliet, the love of his life; his failure to sustain a relationship with any woman; his composing and performing successes; his debilitating loss of hearing over a period of many years; and, ultimately, his selfish, yet successful, battle with his brother Carl's widow to gain custody of his nephew. In his relationship with his nephew, Beethoven turns into the abusive father that he so hated. Finally, death frees Beethoven from his emotional pain and deafness. This imaginative, metaphysical conclusion, along with Beethoven's fearful speculation that his deafness derives from his father's curse upon him, are among the too few theatrical inventions which extend the play beyond its textbook feel.
Six actors play sixteen roles. The performances are lively and straightforward. David Sedgwick plays Beethoven from the age of 10 to his death at the age of 56 without any change in appearance or costume. Changes in intonation and movement lightly suggest the passage of the years. A dignified presence and believable displays of emotion are other elements of his solid performance.
The other cast members play a variety of roles, clearly delineating specific attributes for each role, and smoothly coalescing into an impressive ensemble. Maria Silverman gives compelling performances as Beethoven's mother, his lost love, his sister-in-law, and a woman of easy virtue. Paul Murphy is in exceptionally fine fettle in four character roles. Murphy is particularly engaging as the easygoing prince who is friend and benefactor to Beethoven, and as a distracted Mozart. Michael Giorgio, Brian J. Dowd and Dennis DaPrile play a total of eight roles with aplomb.
The large, semi-abstract unit set by Jessica Parks features four columns and multiple playing spaces at various levels, all surrounding a central stage on which is set a piano of the period. A valance depicting flowers in black on a white background is arced in a semi-circle across the center of the stage. There is a diaphanous curtain at the back of the stage on which identifying dates and locations are projected, and characters are seen in real lit shadow form.
As noted, director Larry Bart has directed most skillfully. He has effectively fulfilled Shapiro's intention to prominently feature Beethoven's stirring and enchanting music throughout the production. Still, it is only fair to note that Bart should have insisted that his author tighten each scene and the dramatic structure, substantially reducing the play's untenable length in the process.
Andy Shapiro's play is so diligent and detailed that we cannot help but believe in its fidelity to Beethoven's life. In a set of notes in the press packet, Shapiro writes that his play is largely factual, while painstakingly noting several specific deviations from facts concerning people and events which he made for dramatic purposes. He even points out where he imputed beliefs and ideas to Beethoven and others which he could only assume were consistent with their lives and times. Andy Shapiro is clearly a man to be believed.
Neophyte author Shapiro submitted the play to 12 Miles West, which has a new playwright's development program. The play has been under development - a number of workshops and staged readings have been assayed there since 2004.
Darkness to Light is an admirable accomplishment for Shapiro. With editing and re-shaping, Darkness into Light could provide suitable, edifying fare for regional and youth-oriented theatres and student audiences.
Darkness to Light continues performances (Thurs.-Sat. 8 pm/ Sun. 3 PM) through June 8, 2008 at the 12 Miles West Theatre in residence at Playwrights Theatre, 33 Green Village Road, Madison, NJ 07940. Box Office: 973-259-9187; online: www.12MilesWest.org.
Darkness into Light by Andy Shapiro; directed by Lenny Bart