THE ROOM SINGS: MANY SONGS, MANY TIMES, MANY PLACES BUT IS IT STILL EVERYWHERE AT ONCE?
What stories can a space hold? As I took my seat at La MaMa to see The Talking Band’s production of The Room Sings, a play about a house throughout history, this question reverberated. I knew about The Talking Band, though had never seen their work; had learned about their predecessors and influences in theatre history class. As I sat in this room, I brought in shreds of history. It seemed fitting that The Talking Band, a company with over four decades under its belt, would examine the pull of time on generations and physical space. Paul Zimet serves as writer and director on this piece, with composition by Ellen Maddow, who also performs as The Room itself, personified.
In some material for The Room Sings, it’s mentioned that the play is “visually inspired by work of photographer Barbara Probst,” who took shots of things from multiple angles in order to show different perspectives of the same moment. To a degree, this provides an apt metaphor for how the play operates, jumping back and forth in time between different characters and sets of problems in a non-linear fashion, while The Room (Maddow), provides transitional commentary about the problems that come with being a house, and what a house contains. Especially memorable lyrics occur when Maddow sings, often accompanied by her jaunty dancing, such as “a purple vacuum with assorted nozzle.” This literal song and dance introduces us to the world of the play, and while it at first seems that Maddow plays a sort of Jack Frost figure, and does indeed feel mythic, The Room’s commentary marks each moment of the play, especially at the beginning.
Thematically, these songs describe motifs of the play itself: aging and the wear and tear that comes with a physical space, letting go of memories and moving on, and the way that different people change you. In fact, what’s most exciting is to think not of how The Room is personified in Maddow, but how the journey of this house is mimicked in the lives of humans — the audience, actors, and characters.
Geographically, the entirety of the play occurs in and around this small house — we move to the dock, and the lake nearby, and to a fence; physically, this is represented by a handful of movable set pieces: a dock, a white fence, and a kitchenette and room with a table and two chairs. There is also a screen in the background, onto which images are projected — first, shots of nature or the house from the outside, and time stamps: 2015, 1987, 1958, and 1943. The play begins in the most-present time, and interweaves the stories.
The 2015 narrative focuses on Hope and Sidney, a couple sorting through remnants abandoned by Hope’s deceased mother and selling the house in dreams of a trip to Florence, permeated by visits from Hope’s father, William, who has suffered a stroke.
The 1987 time frame features brothers Sal and Al, one recently disbarred and in deep financial trouble, the other, lusting from a distance after his brother’s wife, Loretta.
1958 features a young man, Oskar, living with an older Chinese man for the summer, Mr. Ma. This is also the only time frame that seems to deal explicitly with race — Oskar used to live in the house with his parents, and after his father dies, he moves to the city with his mother. Oskar’s mother sends him to live with Mr. Ma for the summer, and Oskar has never seen a Chinese person outside of the entertainment he’s consumed.
In the 1943 tale, we see a brother and sister, identified only by those monikers, fight over alcoholism and a wrought past, and featuring violence.
I summarize all of this to highlight the differences in scope and focus of the narratives, but also because all of these timeframes impact the house differently.
Mr. Ma speaks of saving up to buy the house for cheap, for coming from nothing, and — in what is one of the most exciting inventions of the play, adds figures, with Oskar, to the Chinese-style wallpaper which decorates the home. For Sal and Al, the home is one of vacationing and hunting, of escape, and, for Sal, of dreaming about his beaver-focused opera. For Hope and Sidney, the home seems to largely represent financial gain and freedom. For Brother and Sister, the home is a prison from which they cannot escape each other.
The cast of the play is vast and generally strong in performance, highlighted by the brief moments that feel rooted in certain theatrical styles — for example, Sal completes his opera about beavers, and it is performed by Loretta and Al (with magnificent beaver puppets by Ralph Lee, puppeteered by Maddow and Jack Wetherall) during the 1987 arc. This, and a moment when Mr. Ma’s mother’s spirit haunts Oskar, are energetic and crackle with the fun theatrical mish-mash that feels at the heart of The Talking Band’s style.
The Room Sings seems to exist at the intersection of late-20th century theatre-making and some of the more traditional contemporary styles that exist on New York stages today. It is almost impossible not to think of work that also speaks of homes and places, such as Clybourne Park, and I was even reminded of The Light Years by The Debate Society, which also features the history of a place over time. This connection and intersection is both what’s thrills me about The Talking Band’s performance — like witnessing different inhabitants over time in the home that is American theatre.
This excites me deeply, and does raise, however, some thorny moments for me in the work. For example, Loretta mentions to her brother-in-law that a woman has claimed sexual assault against her husband, but he denies it. “I believe him,” she says, and the play carries on.
When we first see Mr. Ma, he is ironing and swearing with creative phrases, but it’s unclear what lens this is through, and I began to worry this was a portrayal of non-English language — he stops ironing, and begins to speak to Oskar in English, and the behavior or its meaning is lost.
Overall, the different arcs seem to try and deal with the slightest element of reality — we never learn where this house is located, and outside of mentions of race in Mr. Ma’s scene, and some basic socioeconomic wishes of a vacation in the 2015 timeline, we don’t know about the neighborhood or the greater culture this all takes place in geographically. I admire the idea that Sal and Al are hunters, and perhaps NRA members, but I feel that some of the elements highlighted, especially in Mr. Ma’s character and backstory, are half-baked into the play, with the assumption that these greater political and socio-economic questions only need to be minimally answered. While I give The Talking Band the benefit of the doubt and assume none of this was intentional, I disagree with the execution, and would have wished to see a more thoughtful handling of the things that allow the room to sing in the first place: specific people, in specific times and places, inhabiting it, outside of certain character details or quirks.
The Room Sings does feature some technical elements that bring it lightness and joy, and at times some confusion, like strange electronic-based music in the background of some scenes, or a voiceover that sings along with Maddow as she performs as The Room. Overall, Maddow’s song and dance is interesting and disarming in a way that piqued my interest, and the play seems to aim only to explore the ways in which the house’s meaning, or physical self, change and stagnate with time. When the piece ended, I felt as though I’d spent time in a museum of thoughts and styles — unsure of any curated message about the world, but more aware of the physical spaces within it.