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VOL. 126 | NO. 163 | Monday, August 22, 2011

Stoppard Play Mixes Absurdity, Reality

JONATHAN DEVIN | Special to The Memphis News

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An upcoming Playhouse on the Square production will stretch the limits of theatrical characterization through a unique collaboration with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra.

Playhouse on the Square and the Memphis Symphony Orchestra will revive their production of Tom Stoppard’s “Every Good Boy Deserves Favour.”

(Photo: Courtesy of Playhouse on the Square)

Tom Stoppard’s “Every Good Boy Deserves Favour” pits individuality against conformity in a Soviet Era psychiatric hospital, the tableau for a dark-humored struggle to discern reality.

“It is a serious piece, but it is absurd and laugh-out-loud funny as well,” said director Bob Hetherington. “It’s a fairly simple piece to understand and the last time we did it, we were surprised by the amount of laughter.”

Playhouse and MSO last performed the show together in 2006 at the Cannon Center for Performing Arts while Maestro David Loebel was still music director.

In it, a Soviet political dissident named Alexander Ivanov, played by Playhouse resident company member Michael Gravois, is locked away in a psychiatric hospital for his views.

His cellmate, a certifiably insane man coincidentally of the same name, played by Michael Detroit, believes that he is the conductor of a full symphony orchestra, which is present on stage throughout the play. The orchestra will periodically perform pieces written for the play by Andre Previn and conducted by MSO’s new conductor Mei-Ann Chen.

“The orchestra is actually a character in the play,” said Brandon Knisley, vice president for artistic engagement with MSO. “How does that work? It sounds like a crazy idea, but that’s what the writer did. It’s partly about insanity.”

The dissident must choose between playing along so that he will be released and reunited with his young son or standing for his principles. Eventually he goes on hunger strike.

“At issue in the play is do you come down on the side of individualism or conformity,” Hetherington said. “When you get to an orchestra as a metaphor, it’s only successful if you surrender your individuality for the common good.”

“It’s an interesting point,” Knisley said. “You have musicians who have trained their whole lives and they all have this desire and they are compelled to express themselves artistically. When they play in an orchestra, they have to find ways to do that and still conform to a common goal. That is a positive thing in certain respects. When you set this against the backdrop of oppression, and being obstructionist is an indicator of insanity, you see that there are positives and negatives. There’s no black and white to this.”

The humor in the play often comes from the insane man at the expense of the orchestra. The title, “Every Good Boy Deserves Favour,” is a phrase used to teach the letter names of notes on the lines of a staff of music—E, G, B, D, and F.

Americans usually phrase it as “Every Good Boy Does Fine.” The play was written in the 1970s when stories of nightmarish psychiatric hospitals offering “punitive psychiatry” leaked into the western media and Stoppard was particularly disturbed by it.

Stoppard is best known for his plays “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” “Arcadia” and the screenplay for “Shakespeare in Love.”

Previn’s score, which takes up about one third of the play is meant to be simple, beautiful and evocative, in contrast to the bleak environment of the hospital cell. The production also features actors Irene Crist, Bennett Wood, Luca Conti and Bill Andrews. But if the plot sounds a little dated for modern audiences, Hetherington said that history sometimes repeats itself.

“Now we don’t have the Soviet Union any more, but we have Putin who believes that that (punitive psychiatry) works,” he said. “The research that I have done is that over the past couple of years, Putin has been instrumental in reviving punitive psychiatry. So this issue is still alive.”

Tom Stoppard’s “Every Good Boy Deserves Favour” runs Sept. 8-10 at Playhouse on the Square. Tickets can be purchased by calling 726-4656 or visiting www.playhouseonthesquare.org.

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