Long Division: Where Math and the Human Condition Meet

One tragedy, seven characters, plus a whole lot of math equals an avant-garde play portraying the complex ways in which humans are interconnected.

Through a series of monologues, the seven characters in Peter Dickinson’s play, Long Division, share their memories of events that lead to the death of a bullied, mathematically gifted high school student. Dickinson’s use of the unconventional lecture/performance style to convey the stories in a non-linear format is intellectually engaging. As a lover of games, puzzles, and play on words, the lecture series gave me the opportunity to put together the pieces of plot as each story unfolded. The mathematical metaphors which required me to delve into my long-term memory to recall my university calculus classes got my brain juices flowing trying to “solve the case”, or rather discern the underlying theme of the play, that of human interconnection. To further metaphorize the theme of math and human interconnection, as one character told their story, the rest repositioned themselves around the speaker much like particles of a particle physics theoretical framework, signifying the six degrees of separation that connects one person to another.

I appreciate the variety of characters that Dickinson’ wrote into the play. Selecting characters from all walks of life truly made the story feel more plausible and appropriate considering the diverse city in which we live. However, I feel the casting director may have played into the ethnic and gender stereotypes a bit too much – a robust lesbian bar owner (Jennifer Lines), a tall, handsome, white male business executive (Jason Clift), and of course, my favourite, the Asian math teacher (Nicco Lorenzo Garcia) – how cliché. I do wonder if the playwright wrote these ethnic and gender choices into the script or if it was a decision made by the casting director? Nonetheless, the cast played their roles well, and spoke of the mathematical theories as though they were experts in the field even including some cheesy puns, to boot.

The black box set with the back drop of random 3D geometrical shapes was simple but gave the cast a lot of space for the abstract dance choreographed by Lesley Telford. Aside from positioning themselves similar to a string theory diagram, I honestly didn’t pay much attention to the intricacies of the choreography. Not because I didn’t care for it – I was just more engrossed in the dialogue and quietly snickering at the math puns.

To sum up (I can make math puns too!), Dickinson’s Long Division is a creative and well-written piece of experimental theatre that is not only entertaining but thought provoking and intellectually stimulating. Bravo.

long division

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Dorothy Dittrich’s The Piano Teacher: moments of wisdom from an unlikely source.

 

Elaine has long come to terms with the arthritis which sidelined her performing career as a pianist – or so she thinks.

She’s remade herself into the kind of inspired piano teacher who comfortably accepts a student’s desire to not perform on recital day knowing, perhaps, that the music lives already in the child.

When Erin, a celebrated pianist so grief-stricken she can’t even bear to sit on a piano bench, asks Elaine to be her teacher, playwright Dorothy Dittrich uses their relationship to explore grief, loss and the potency latent in music.

“Music is a language. You have to learn to speak it, not just play it,” Elaine (Caitriona Murphy) says in the Arts Club’s production of The Piano Teacher. “Music played from the heart is healing.”

When Erin (Megan Leitch) recounts the recital day incident in an imaginary conversation with her husband, I want to cheer in solidarity for all young music students. “Imagine the freedom, Kevin. Imagine the space not to play,” Erin says.   The child said, “’I learned a bunch of songs,’ and sat down!”

Humour lightens what could be a heavy theme. Erin doesn’t like Beethoven because he was “too big, too loud. Probably a bastard.” Elaine admits Chopin’s music “reminds me of clammy hands.”

But for all the levity, Megan Leitch’s Erin is a painfully accurate depiction of the desperate loneliness and emptiness of depression. Jenifer Darbellay’s costumes are perfect in everyday simplicity. Although we never actually see Erin’s thin, bare, brave shoulder-blades, we feel them.

Patrick Pennefather’s spare sound design skillfully walks the line between appealing to intellect and emotion, and never descends into overblown indulgence.

While Elaine’s love interest, Tom, is a lightly sketched character played with amiable animal warmth by Kamyar Pazandeh, there’s no real need for Tom to be fully-fleshed. Depression flattens perspective and if one is emotionally ready, as Elaine becomes, even the smallest event or interaction can be enough to help spark a return to life.

As a musician, I warmed to Dittrich’s theme. Playing music is indeed “a relationship,” that transforms both player and listener. The chord “unbroken” can  sound “banal”, but broken, can indeed be “sublime.”

“The broken chord acts as a container for the melody,” Elaine says poetically. “It supports without imposing itself.”

In one heart-stopping moment, Elaine asks Erin “What’s (composer Aaron) Copeland to you?”

Erin answers with one word: “Space.”

“This man has found a way to make us hear the landscape and the space around it,” she continues. “He’s given space a voice.”

As Erin regains her ability to play music, Elaine finds the space to explore her own loss. “I wasn’t prepared for Erin,” Elaine says. “How could I be? She was the teacher.”

Yet while Erin and Elaine’s dialogue is clear, spare and delicate in its dance between emotion and rationality, Elaine’s lecture/musings occasionally jarred with painful banality. I felt an almost physical affront from inane lines like “Life changes you,” and “I think you just have to be grateful for what you have and do the things you love.”

Does the blatancy of these lessons, along with the obvious metaphor of Elaine installing a giant new window on her landing at home, originate from the playwright? Dittrich, afterall, also wrote this sensitive, illuminating observation: music is “sounds and silence in motion. It has to have space and time. Sometimes it gets too intense and it has to breathe.”

Or does the responsibility lie with the Arts Club looking to provide its paying audience with simple answers nicely wrapped up in a picture window?

– Jenny Lee

Dittrich’s The Piano Teacher: Grief and Metatheatre

Dorothy Dittrich’s, The Piano Teacher: Lessons on Life and Love posits several questions about grief including: how do we continue to perform our lives after shattering loss?

The Piano Teacher explores this question through the relationship between Erin and Elaine, which initially seems absurd (even to the characters). However, Megan Leitch and Caitriona Murphy’s portrayals made the idea of a piano expert needing a piano teacher credible. In Act I, Erin is crippled by her “traumatic loss,” while in Act II, it is Elaine whose spiral into anger becomes debilitating. The conflict escalates between the characters, as the piece, like any composition, needs to be “pulled apart” and (re)arranged. Tom’s integration seems a convenient plot device, but I was willing to go along with it because Kamyar Pazandeh’s charming performance adds necessary levity to the story.  However, Tom’s patience and affability in the face of Erin’s outbursts makes him seem flat and less inauthentic.

David Roberts’ minimal set design allows the characters to feature in the space. The grand piano’s singularly dark presence on the muted colour palate of the set, reinforces music’s centrality in the play. The strings stretched from floor to rafters create a maze of tactile threads, which nod to the play’s musical theme. As the play unfolded, I found myself wondering about the function of the strings, at times to the point of pulling me out of the story. In Act II, I began to see a correlation between the strings and each character’s emotional stance. When characters touch the strings, they confront their feelings, when they avoid their feelings, the strings become obstacles.

One area where The Piano Teacher falters is in the exclusive musical references. At times, the discussions of music seems like an inside joke. While many of the names dropped are familiar and the discussions are snarky (Beethoven is called a “bastard”), the meaning was clearer to audience members with a musical background. Augmenting the references with by clips of some compositions alluded to in the play, could elucidate meaning for patrons with limited musical fluency.

Comparing music to language and relationships, The Piano Teacher explores the music’s expressive powers and limitations. Relationships, language, and music each have the capacity to contain (but not suffocate) sufferers in periods of profound grief. However, sometimes that capacity is not realized. Sometimes grief mutes all expressive powers.  In The Piano Teacher, the most authentic lines compare grief to getting off at the wrong stop and then “having your head blown to bits and handed to you in a paper bag.” Even as Erin, utters these words, Leitch’s performance underlines how inadequate the analogy. No analogy would suffice, since grief causes such disorientation.  The Piano Teacher addresses the paradox of mourners who are compelled to speak the unspeakable.

In its best moments, Dittrich’s play use metatheatrical devices solve the problem of how to survive grief; sometimes mourners need the “space not to play” at least until they can “be in the space” with their grief.

 

The Piano Teacher

Arts Club Theater Company

Goldcorp Stage at the BMO Theater Centre

April 20–May 14

It is sometimes difficult to see the forest from the trees and yet, some moments in time remain more memorable than others as it slows and provides a crystalline clarity as we recognise the frailties that come with being mortal or appreciate the beauty within each moment.

The Piano Teacher is a play by Dorothy Dittrich and touted as being about the lessons on life and love. It is!

From the very moment that Act I begins, Megan Leitch who plays Erin, Catriona Murphy playing Elaine and Kamyar Pazandeh who plays Tom, create a gentle tension of heartbreak and loss that is connected by the power of music and love, as they weave their way through this remarkable story of grief, compassion and joy.

For any of us who have experienced the paralyzing effect of loss and grief, it is difficult to not open our hearts to Erin (Megan Leitch), as she walks on stage and shares how she lost her husband and son in a tragic automobile accident with the hope that Elaine (Catriona Murphy) the music teacher who is gradually losing her hands to arthritis, might light the path back to her music and the concert hall.

David Robert’s has designed a simple and elegant set complete with a baby grand piano that becomes the central point in the homes of the two women as they remind us of the frailties that we all share. As for Tom, he was a welcomed metaphor for distraction and rebuilding, and he offers a playfulness and an interesting human touch to contrast the stories of Elaine and Erin.

In the May Edition of Vancouver Theater, arts critic Jerry Wasserman wrote, “ the play has a lot going for it—in particular, lovely classical music and a beautiful performance by Caitriona Murphy in the title role. It also features nice sentiment about the power of music to heal. But in other areas it needs significant work to develop it into something more than just a bromide about how things that are damaged will inevitably get better”.

As a reluctant critic I am struck by how different each of us sees, hears, smells and feels each moment in this world that shapes who we are. This doesn’t make any of us more right or wrong or something good or bad. Depending on how we enter this forest will determine how we see it, and how we are moved by the gentlest of movements, nuance, memories or sound. I applaud Dorothy Dittrich for a brilliant play and for having the courage to allow the cast and an extremely talented creative team to take it and breathe life into The Piano Player.

If you walk far enough into the forest, you can’t miss it!

Moving Through Grief: A Review of Dorothy Dittrich’s new play, “The Piano Teacher”

The Piano Teacher, a powerful new play by Vancouver’s Dorothy Dittrich, musician, writer, musical director and playwright, explores themes of loss and grief and the slow process of healing.  It is also a story of love and friendship and the healing powers of music.

The story starts with Erin, a woman who has been incapacitated by grief since the tragic death of her husband and son, killed in a car accident by a drunk driver, just before Christmas,  two years earlier.  Although she is a concert pianist, she has receded into herself, and has been unable to touch her piano since the tragedy ripped her life apart.

We meet Erin when she has finally been able to find enough energy and interest to attend a piano recital for the young daughter of a friend.  At that recital, Erin meets the piano teacher, Elaine, and unexpectedly discovers a sanctuary where she feels safe, again, for the first time.

Erin reaches out to Elaine, and the two meet at Elaine’s home.

Actor Megan Leitch, as Erin, does a masterful job of portraying the pain Erin is feeling, and at the beginning of the play, seems fragile and smaller than life.  On the other hand, Caitriona Murphy, as Elaine, portrays a vibrant and strong character who is very much in control of her life, but is also sensitive and empathetic to Erin and her pain.  The actors captured the fragility of Erin and the strength of Elaine in a powerful way that immediately drew me in, and I became an active part of the experience until after the last line was spoken.

As a friendship between Erin and Elaine evolves, we see that Elaine has also experienced her own losses and grief, but is healthy enough to be living a vibrant life.  She initially doesn’t know how to help Erin, but continues to listen and to be available for her.  This is a story of transition, of moving through difficult emotions to a different state of mind and health, with the help of people who offer their love and support.   Playwright, Dittrich, says that “something about flow and moving through a feeling struck me as distinctly musical”, and music is central to this work.  Part of the message I took from this play was that grief and loss can be mitigated, in part, by the act of creation.  In Erin and Elaine’s case, it was creating music, but other forms of creativity could also assist a person suffering from loss to move through the pain, and on to another stage of his or her life.

A turning point for Erin was when she had the courage to follow Elaine’s suggestion that she “make a change” in her life, and Erin made that change by hiring a handyman to install a large window in her home.  This was a renovation she had always wanted to make, but one vetoed by her late husband.  The installation was an obvious metaphor for bringing new light into her world, but it was also a significant step away from her past life, and into her new life.

The handyman, Tom, was played by Kamyar Pazandeh.   Tom added a new dimension to the play with his energy, humour, common sense, and his love of life.  We know that he had his own regrets about his life, but we didn’t learn a lot about these, as the focus of the work was on the relationship between Erin and Elaine.

As an audience member, drawn into Erin’s grief, I found it difficult to be reminded of the painful, visceral grief buried inside myself from the past, and of the knowledge that if I live long enough, more losses are ahead.  The work caused me to reflect upon how I might deal with this pain in the future, and was reminded of the power of friendship, creativity and the importance taking those difficult first steps forward, after a significant loss.

Congratulations to actors, Megan Leitch, Caitriona Murphy, and Kamyar Pazandeh;  creative team, Yvette Nolan, Director, Rachel Ditor, Dramaturg, David Roberts, Set Designer, Jennifer Darbellay, Costume Designer, Kyla Gardiner, Lighting Designer, Patrick Pennefather, Sound Designer, Allison Spearin, Stage Manager, and Sandra Drag, Apprentice Stage Manager, for bringing Dorothy Dittrich’s compelling work to life, and for contributing to the richness of Vancouver theatre and to the cultural and emotional experiences of those who shared this creative, thoughtful and important new work.