The show goes up in the Armory. The stage area – a high-ceilinged opening, difficult to describe and even more difficult to see in the dim blue light – surrounds two rows of mismatched chairs. The audience sits in the center of the space, dressed in their Houseparties formalwear. There are sculptures on the walls – pained plaster faces with branches sprouting from their necks. The play promises to be unusual.
Ruby Pan ‘05 makes full use of the unusual Armory space in her thesis show. Narrator Hafiz (Dan Kublick ’07) coaxes and leads the audience from its seats to follow the action as it moves around the room, through doors, and down tunnels. We shuffle after the actors, our tuxes, ties and heels appearing sufficiently theatrical to complement the production’s eerie atmosphere.
Besides a creative use of space, Pan’s changes of audience perspective helps to clarify the boundaries between dreamlife and real life—otherwise lost in the shifting stream of consciousness that is her script, over half of which takes place in the minds of an anaesthetized patient and a dead girl.
Pan’s tendency to blur realities would confuse a more complicated plot. The Thousand Stringed Instrument is more a collection of detailed tangents than a storyline. It centers on an operation: Scheherazade Gardner (Sarah Adeyinka ’06), having been killed in a car accident, is transplanted into the middle-aged body of Derrick Solomon (Andy Hoover ’07). Technically, only her heart is transferred, and visually, a symbolic ball of red yarn passes between their chests. Yet the dead Scheherazade somehow arrives full force in Solomon’s post-op daze – invading his drugged delirium with all the scorn of entitled youth.
Predictably, Scheherazade goes on to change Solomon’s life, and naturally, her sorrowing family pulls together in her sudden absence—the trajectory of foregone conclusion clear almost from the start. Interest comes from the images, and—because of the traveling audience—the journeys Pan uses to sculpt the minds of her characters. A detour to witness the physical exchange of heart becomes horribly final when a metal gate suddenly grinds closed behind the audience. Enraged by Derrick Solomon’s history of women and loveless peccadilloes, Scheherazade exacts her revenge by tying him to a scaffold, where she sics South Asian sex workers on him.
Even the staging of the real-world side stories takes on fantastical dimensions. Distanced brother Hans Gardner (Christopher Simpson ‘08) and his girlfriend (Annie Preis ‘07) mimic fretful sleep while standing at a window, and the car that kills Scheherazade sends her on an extended, abstracted tumble through space in the arms of the other characters.
It is up to the visual moments, the choreography (by graduate student Jeremy Olson), and the music (by Khalil Sullivan ‘04) to carry the show. The acting suffers under the almost constant musical ambiance—unable to move beyond the show’s slow, dreamlike feel with a contrast of quality or emotions. However, Hoover’s guarded Solomon and Kublick’s endearing Hafiz remain engaging exceptions. Scheherazade’s mother, Catherine Cushenberry ‘07 falls into this trap of sameness, yet she emotes her grief so clearly and so effectively that at one point she nearly conjures tears in her eyes.
The show nevertheless perseveres: it is an intriguing string of spectacles and ideas, if disconnected. It only falls flat as the pace lags. Many moments, ingeniously envisioned, simply go on for too long. A late scene isolates the problem: Scheherazade walks through the space, picks up several scattered roses and sings – and then proceeds to slowly recover every single rose. There are a good ten or twenty. This eats up several minutes, in which no additional action or development furthers the already-made point.
Again, though, images return to lift Pan’s show beyond its flaws. In the final scene, Solomon, reformed and revitalized by Scheherazade’s tissue and morals, pays a visit to her slowly recovering mother. In the course of their conversation, he takes out a stethoscope and offers this stranger a chance to listen to her daughters’ heart.
The moment is astonishing. An audience member to my left gives an audible moan. Willa Gardner listens at Solomon’s chest: and though this image, like others, lingers too long, it completes the play. Pan’s creativity and insight have created something with the great and rare power to move us.