A New Chamber Music for the 21st Century
A cast of eleven actors, almost entirely under the age of thirty and only a singular Equity card amongst them, sit with two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and multiple Tony Award nominated Arthur Kopit in the basement of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Greenpoint. He is not, as you might expect, teaching a class, giving a workshop, or dispensing wisdom and advice gleaned from his nearly five decades in the American theatre. Instead, the diverse and energetic cast along with their director, Emily Moler, are Kopit’s latest collaborators.
“The play you are performing has never been seen by anybody,” Kopit, who turned 80 this May, tells the room as they prepare to read the latest pages of a new, updated version of his 1962 play Chamber Music based on his original drafts. Just before they dive in, Kopit leans forward, takes off his glasses, shakes his head and says (seemingly to himself), “My agent doesn’t even know about this.”
A room of people reading a play is always an odd thing, bearing roughly the same relation to the real deal as sheet music does to the experience of a full symphony. There are times, however, given the right set of circumstances, environment, and imagination when hearing a play read aloud can produce profundity entirely its own: it is the sound of potential, of an approaching greatness. When Nick Mecikalski, who plays the Doctor’s Assistant, began the monologue that closed the original text and opens the new ending, a fog seemed to descend from the low ceilings of the church basement.
Set in an insane asylum, Chamber Music is commonly read as a feminist allegory for the Cold War and the illogical nature and environmental cost of nuclear proliferation. The action follows a group of institutionalized women who have adopted the personas of various famous historical figures: Gertrude Stein, Susan B. Anthony, Joan of Arc, Queen Isabella I, Osa Johnson, Pearl White, Constanze Mozart, and Amelia Earhart. The women are manipulated by a malicious male doctor to believe they are due to be attacked by the adjacent men’s ward.
The asylum itself is based on Kopit’s own experience working in a mental institution while attending Harvard in the late 1950’s, where Kopit says a number of the doctors seemed as insane as their patients. The doctor in Chamber Music seems to deliberately drive the women further towards insanity, a situation according to Moler that is not unlike our current political climate, “We’re a country attacking its own people to prove how tough it can be. We’ve become a self-cannibalizing nation.”
When Chamber Music was first performed it was accompanied by a play about the men’s ward and featured a vastly different ending. The entire program was called Asylum and closed before its slated opening. When Kopit revisited the play in the summer of 1964, he cut the men’s ward entirely and altered the ending. The changes worked and the play has subsequently become a favorite amongst college theatre departments (a fact perhaps owed to its political themes and large female cast).
Moler, 24, was the assistant director for a production of the play in high school, where she fell in love with the show. “It was the first time that I felt that theatre really clicked for me. It had some bizarre concept—the women were in giant Barbie doll cases.” Last fall Moler assistant-directed on Pipeline Theatre’s production of Dave Malloy’s Beardo at St. John’s, where she befriended the church’s pastor, Katrina Foster. When the run concluded, Pastor Foster approached Moler and asked her what play she would next like to do at St. John’s. Chamber Music seemed a natural fit for the space, “I’ve been dying to do this play in an asylum and I think [St. John’s] is so institutional and outdated and creepy and claustrophobic and I was inspired to do this piece here. I read in a few places that Chamber Music originally premiered with an accompanying play about the men’s ward. So I went down a research wormhole and found that [Kopit’s] original drafts were at the Fale’s Library at NYU.”
Moler’s visit to the Fale’s Library in late May proved fortuitous. As Moler read she immediately picked up on subtle differences between the published text and the original drafts. She was most surprised, however, when she reached what she thought to be the ending only to find the play continue for several more pages into a climax only hinted at in the published version.
If the published version ends with an ellipse, the original drafts end with an exclamation. Embedded within the original (and now newly updated) ending is a frantic cry for the most basic of demands—the desire to be seen and recognized as human and to be treated with decency and respect. The women in Chamber Music have been literally institutionalized, but if they are anything like the average American they were likely confined and subjected long before insanity struck: be it by nationalism, religion, the patriarchy, or that treacherous and great American God with its eternally gaping maw, The Dollar.
When Kopit had revised the play in ’64 he chose a subtler, more ambiguous ending over the explosive power of the original. The women of the asylum descend upon themselves with dire costs. As Moler puts it, “There’s an absurd logic to the play but a logic that is essential to what is going on right now. The women are trained by the institution they are in to tear each other down and not trust each other.” Moler knew immediately that this was the play she needed to produce. “I just burst into tears in the NYU archive and was like this is the ending that we need right now. What the fuck else do we need to be doing to get people to notice that we’re suffering? What else do we all have to be doing that says we’re human beings?”
Moler got into contact with Kopit through The Lark Theatre and proposed a production using the original ending. Kopit, who had forgotten about the original ending entirely, took it one step further and offered to rewrite the ending and a bridge from the original into a new, altogether unique version of the play. Kopit has continued to rewrite the play during rehearsals, often with the actors reading the latest drafts off their smartphones. The ensemble themselves have proven an invaluable resource for Kopit, providing him with notes and inspiration. It is clear that the play is being shaped with the cast in mind, taking into account their voices, their diversity, and their seemingly endless positivity and trust. As he recently told Broadway World regarding the production, “This is the kind of process that shows you that a play is a living document. It’s never done. There’s always room for it to grow.”
What Kopit, Moler and the ensemble have achieved is a true anomaly—an updated Cold War-era political play that has lost none of its original power (perhaps even gained a measure or two) during the process of changing and altering its context. But, as always, the material would be meaningless if Moler and Kopit weren’t surrounded by such a warm, dedicated and capable ensemble. During a time when our leaders and most visible members of society fail to inspire (to say the least), it’s worth remembering that inspiration, hope, and beauty can be found in the unlikeliest of places—in the Fale’s Library at NYU, for instance, or even the basement of a church in north Brooklyn. You just have to keep looking.
Chamber Music runs from September 7th – 16th at St. John’s Lutheran Church and features Briana Archer, Abby Awe, Salomé Egas, Simone Grossman, Teresa Langford, Nick Mecikalski, Bre Northrup, Vanessa Pereda-Felix, Russell Sperberg, Amelia Windom, and Genevieve Simon
Tickets can be purchased here: http://chambermusic2017.bpt.me/