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April 3, 2011

Propeller: In an Age of Tweets and txts, Musical Signposts

By Leslie Stainton

I’m seeing Richard III again today and wish I could do the same for Comedy. I want to catch and somehow memorize all the glorious, intricate, how-the-hell-did-they-do-that details of these two mind-bending productions. I’ve rarely seen a company that so exhaustively squeezes the meaning from a single line of text. Watch Richard Frame dissect and reconstruct and almost literally sculpt Dromio’s pun-packed speech about a spherical wench (in Comedy) if you want to see what I mean.

If you’ve seen either production, you’ll know that music—liturgical, folk, rock, mariachi, tango, rap—underscores and illuminates and just as often undercuts the action onstage. The company describes Richard III as a Requiem Mass, and while I wouldn’t say it’s quite that (though there’s plenty of spilled blood for the literally Mass-minded), it’s far more musical than any Richard I can remember seeing. The production opens with a somber Pie Jesu that lets you hear the gorgeous voices director Ed Hall has assembled in this miraculous little company. (I’m told at least one cast member is a former King’s College choirboy, but he’s far from the only actor with serious vocal chops.)

The Pie Jesu is a perfect example of the egalitarian and deeply collaborative way this company works. The actors went off by themselves, learned and prepared the piece (sung a cappella, like so much of their work), and brought it to Hall. (“Oh, we got to show this to Ed!” actor Chris Myles, who plays Buckingham, remembers thinking.)

Hall was blown away. The piece felt right and quickly found its way into the opening beat of the production, where it sets the tone for everything that follows—all the sacrificial blood-letting, the keening widows and inconsolable mothers, the great dirge that is this play.

“That domino at the very beginning was a great stroke of luck,” Hall said yesterday in a Brown Bag panel at UM’s Lane Hall. “If you get that right, all the other dominoes fall where they should.”

The cast creates a musical soundscape for every show they do—and it’s not just music but offstage sound effects (wind, sirens, horse hooves) and helpful pings that accompany the mention of particular characters (Richmond) or props (the gold chain in Comedy). It’s yet another way Propeller helps audiences who inhabit an age of Tweets and txts navigate the syntactical thicket of Elizabethan English.

With music and sound, as with virtually everything else in these shows, actors do most of the work. They prepare and perform songs, shift sets (all those sinister screens in Richard), deliver props, learn each other’s roles (so that anyone can step in for almost anyone in a pinch). As one company member told me, “If we have a problem to solve, we don’t go for the technological solution.” That’s a huge part of what makes these productions so fun. We’re all—actors and audience—using our imaginations in ways we seldom get to do.

Chris Myles said yesterday that the demands on Propeller actors are so enormous he gets “offstage fright” instead of stage fright. “When I’m onstage and my character’s in a scene, I’m fine. But offstage, I’m changing costumes, delivering props, chanting Latin. There’s always something I know I’m bound to be doing.”

Often it’s singing. Unaccompanied or accompanied by the simplest of instruments—a handheld drum, a wooden stick—the human voice is on magical display here. Hall says music is a deeply “informative” part of Propeller’s work. In the very first rehearsals, when the cast is just sitting around a table reading the script, they’ll talk about where they might want to include musical moments and debate the style of music that might work best in the production. “We spend half our time on YouTube listening to stuff.”

Happily, for another 24 or so hours, audiences in Ann Arbor don’t have to resort to YouTube. We’ve got the real thing.


Leslie Stainton is the author of "Staging Ground: An American Theater and Its Ghosts" (Penn State, 2014) and "Lorca: A Dream of Life (Farrar Straus Giroux 1999)." She'll read from "Staging Ground" at Nicola's Books in Ann Arbor on Monday, November 3, 2014 at 7 pm.