The metaphorical pianoby Karl Gehrke, Minnesota Public Radio
A family from the early 1900s and their piano become metaphors for current economic times in a new production called "The Piano Tuner." It's the latest show from the Twin Cities experimental theater company Live Action Set.
Using a mix of drama, dance, clowning and classical music, the production tells the story of a lonely piano tuner whose unfulfilled dreams get caught up in a family that's falling apart.
Minneapolis — As "The Piano Tuner" opens, a successful, lumberman comes home and announces to his wife and children that he's cut down the last tree. Despite assurances to his family that they will keep taking steps forward to a bright future, the mother becomes hysterical. Her response to the loss of their economic livelihood is that the piano must be tuned.
The production's music director and pianist Paul Kovakovic says the piano is almost another character in the play.
"It occupies center stage," he said. "Especially for the mother, the piano is pretty much everything. It represents wealth, luxury, and the life that she's accustomed to, but that is falling away from her."
When the piano tuner arrives to fix the instrument, he plunks the keys, but the piano makes no sound. The mother, however, hears a painful dissonance and covers her ears, much to the confusion of the piano tuner.
The piano tuner returns for a second visit, but now pretends to hear the piano. He fantasizes of a world in which he's an accomplished pianist and the mother a great operatic singer.
The idea for "The Piano Tuner" came from Live Action Set's co-artistic director Megan Odell about three years ago. But it was far from fully formed.
"I basically knew there was this family," she said. "I knew that some sorts of things might happen to them, but maybe they wouldn't. Nothing was set in stone for the show in terms of the story."
Odell says that's typical for Live Action Set's productions. They don't start out with a script. Instead their shows are built collaboratively in rehearsal through improvisation and games until a coherent story and narrative arc emerge.
Star Tribune free-lance critic Camile LeFevre says the members of Live Action Set have their own way of putting together ideas. She says what makes the company unique is the group's pursuit of intriguing ideas about life and humanity through an intense physicality rooted in a clowning tradition.
"Married with that very intense physicality and astute cultural commentary is an almost naive acting style," LeFevre said. "It makes for theater that is very disarming and then can sneak up on you and hit you with something you didn't see coming."
"The Piano Tuner" features a prominent singing role for mezzo soprano Laurel Cameron. She comes from the world of opera and had never done any experimental theater until this production. Cameron says the audition would have scared her off if they hadn't been looking for a mezzo.
"It's actually a wonderful experience," Cameron said. "It's very freeing. It's not so hoity-toity or very rigid. It's making music, because it works and feels right for the scene."
Live Action Set co-artistic director Megan Odell says company members don't want to just surprise the audience. They also want to surprise themselves by following their own curiosity as to where a moment might lead.
"I think that all of us would be really bored if you could come and say, 'Oh, that was that.' For us that's not very interesting. We want to mix it up a little bit. And that's where we think some real beauty can emerge," said Odell.
Live Action Set's production of "The Piano Tuner" opens Thursday evening and runs through the weekend at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis.
- Morning Edition, 04/10/2008, 6:55 a.m.