The Room Sings

Sitting in the audience of The Room Sings, I thought of Caliban’s marvelous speech in The Tempest:
Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.

And so is this play full of noises that give delight. The Room Sings, which is presented by La MaMa in association with Talking Band, blends dialogue with background sound and music so beautifully that they together form one sublime soundscape. There are chirping and banging, vibes and a sort of pinging, and a voice that’s doing something like scatting. There are water sounds and a sound that’s a cross between a whistle and a soft scream. And when the coyote cries, one of the characters says “It sounds like it’s in pain.”

The aural delights aren’t beneath the dialogue in the way we might expect. Sound and dialogue are carefully woven together in this production. Indeed, the cast deliver their lines as if those lines were music. As directed by Talking Band’s Artistic Director Paul Zimet, who also wrote the script, their voices are instruments for the melody of speech. There’s a gentle artifice to their acting that’s most clear in the murder scene: there are a couple of stylized slaps and a clean, endearing killing.

There’s no real story here, just a few events. The play concerns a house and its series of occupants. Its short scenes jump around between 2015, 1987, 1958 and, finally, 1943, which year hosts the notorious murder of a nasty old man by his nasty old sister. We like all these people, and although a couple of sad things happen, they manage well enough.

The entire cast are meticulous and eloquent. Chief among them is Henry Yuk as an older man who talks to his deceased mother and offers her “ghost food” in the Chinese tradition. When he delivers a barrage of obscenities he’s entertaining, not offensive. When he tells a young fellow about the murder in the house, his tale is suitably eerie.

But there’s more to the play than the house and its inhabitants. There’s a sort of host, played by an actress, who sings and sort of dances and distances the action for us. And the show wraps up with an opera that one of the characters has written. Its characters are beavers, and the terrific beaver puppets are by Ralph Lee.

Paul Zimet’s direction never falters. He gives the show a uniform tone when the house’s residents are speaking, and he keeps the host and the puppet opera whimsical.

The attractive set, which consists of smallish platforms on wheels, is by Nic Ularu. The wallpaper in the house is described as “faux Chinese landscape”. The very nice costumes are by Kiki Smith. When the host wants to indicate that he’s not an on-stage presence, he hides his face with his boater. And on the top of the boater is painted the same design as the faux Chinese landscape wallpaper. It’s really kool.

The problem with The Room Sings is that there’s no depth to the characters or their situations. For all Mr. Zimet’s formidable talents as a director and sound designer, his script offers no discussion. We’d like to hear the lyricism of this production coupled with characters who change and grow. As it is, we're satisfied with the show’s marvelous flavor.

Steve Capra
April 2017

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