What do you get when you combine two Italian theatre artists, a former supervisor for the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit, a jazz musician, and an educational sociologist? The answer might surprise you! I attended a performance of Crescendo during its first weekend of production and I walked away with a smile on my face and the wheels spinning in my head.
Crescendo is a new play making its debut at The University of Iowa. It is the brainchild of collaborators Paola Coletto, Matteo Destro, John Rapson, and Paul Kalina and made possible through the Iowa Partnership in the Arts. The idea was first planted when Kalina and Coletto travel to Italy to meet with mask makers, particularly Matteo Destro. Through a three-year process, this project grew and other collaborators were brought on board, such as jazz artist, John Rapson, who composed original music for the show.
When I first arrived for the show, the theatre was dimly lit with a bare and exposed stage. Window frames hung as the backdrop. The big band was on the second level of the set and back into a corner. Over the audience’s left hung another balcony for musicians, which became the spot where most of the improvising happened.
With only one exception, most of the characters’ roles could be determined through their interactions. The first character to appear seemed to be a “spirit”–to be honest, this is the one character I can’t figure out. It would appear that her job was to rein in the two clown characters that were oversized and over-excited. These two clowns served the grotesque caricature of a headmaster–tall skinny top hat, obnoxiously tall (he was on stilts) with an oversized trench coat that was pushed out like a hoop skirt. His long black fingernails were at least two feet long! (It should also be noted that none of the characters had names printed in the program.) The five main characters used masks of the Italian theatre tradition. Each mask had a unique persona and emotion with which it had been created; so even if the character was simply staring at you, there was a great deal of personality being displayed by the actor. (Production photos can be seen by clicking this link.)
The majority of the play takes place in a school setting. The five main characters take turns playing both student and teacher roles, with each having their own class. I was a bit lost when they began because the first class was Spanish, but as the play moved forward, it moved into web design and tests. The audience even got involved with the standardized tests. The headmaster tossed papers into the audience and was assisted by his two clowns and their three… words can only describe them as “minions” because they have no face and say no words, only utterances… pass out tests and pencils to audience members and then are graded in public–with no consistency whatsoever. (One might be able to deduce from the script of the play that the collaborators were trying to make a statement about the problems in education.) For me, the most powerful moment of the play, though it is filled with comedy, is a scene where Olive is day dreaming. She’s standing in a classroom and pretending that she’s talking to her class and asking them what they wanted to be when they grew up. The other characters physically step into her dream and each one goes through elaborate portrayals of their future. As they begin to leave and are almost off-stage, they turn back and yes, “But Olive, what do YOU want to be when you grow up?” Silence had never been more powerful in this play than in this moment before she responded, “A teacher.”
One aspect that I found fascinating was the simple use for costuming. Each character had a base costume and when they became the teacher for that scene, it was as simple as adding something to the costume–a sweater, scarf, or tweed blazer complete with elbow patches. As described in the program notes, the musicians and actors take turns driving the action on stage. It was interesting to watch as Ryan Smith and David Hagedorn would improvise to action they saw on the stage, or vice versa; an actor would change when someone in the band played something in response to a scripted moment. Of course, the musician’s can’t have free reign and play whatever they wanted. Rapson created more than 50 little vignettes to be used as a base skeleton and the musicians improvised from there.
Crescendo runs through October 19 and tickets can be purchased through the Hancher box office. With new works there is always the question of if it will ever get performed again. In the right market – academia and New York City – I think this play has the potential to become accepted by the theatre community.