Friday, July 20, 2012
Fringe 2012 Review: With Love and A Major Organ
With Love and A Major Organ is a play that’s all about imbalance of heart; a romantic comedy with a decidedly large twist. George’s mom Mona (Martha Ross) has a broken heart. To protect him, she changed his heart to paper. Anabel (playwright Julia Lederer) has a wild and full heart. After meeting George (Robin Archer) on the subway she pursues him, day after day. Angry at the lack of response from the paper-hearted love interest, she literally takes her heart out of her chest and sends it to him. When nothing returns, she must look for them both.
First, the great stuff: all the actors are excellent and fully engaged with the material. The show’s greatest strength is its world-building; it creates the sort of magical realism world that is one of the best reasons to go to the theatre. It’s challenging and fun and fascinating. People live with paper hearts, or without hearts at all, with the main side effects being numbness and emotional/brain fog, rather than immediate death. I want to spend time in this world; I want to explore every nook and cranny of it and see what else is different. I want to read a book series set here. The show is very inventive when it focuses on what a heart is, what it does, and who needs one. The show’s other main strength is its humour, and the flights of fancy, lyrical emotions and increasingly glorious similes deliriously delivered by Lederer.
The show’s discussion of communication is very modern, which contrasts nicely with the fairy-tale feel of paper hearts and exchanging organs. Anabel is caught between times; she loves the feeling of carrying a tape player and exchanging tapes, which seems almost as quaint as an actual letter, but she also vlogs, tweets, Facebooks, Foursquares, creates tracking apps, and uses all sorts of social media, which, tellingly, don’t really help her make a connection; only the heart does. I’m not surprised Anabel uses Instagram; her tapes are the hipster aural equivalent of that photo app (they’re a little precious, but they ultimately work).
Meanwhile, Mona uses Google Shrink, which replaces a human psychiatrist with algorithms. She feels more comfortable there, and, judging by audience reaction, it seemed a lot of us wish this actually existed, or are surprised it doesn’t. As much as she tries to hide behind her Internet therapist, all of Google Shrink’s suggestions for her involve getting out into the real world and meeting people, through (initially hilariously unsuccessful) speed dating, and recreational leisure activities. She makes her first real connection through the mention of a book. Anabel, on the other hand, calls the newspaper yet another way to hide from human connection; when she says “the paper,” it has the double meaning of also unconsciously referencing the paper heart inside his chest.
It seems unkind to pick at some inconsistencies or flaws in an exciting piece, but there is some dramaturgy to deal with. First, the quirk is strong with this one. Mostly, it’s welcome, but when there are inconsistencies with the text it sticks out as added quirk for the sake of quirk. For example, there are several references to George’s mother having a hard time accepting his steadfast vegetarianism and devotion to dodgeball. However, if George’s character doesn’t know what he cares about, and is apparently unable to feel emotion, then the dodgeball and vegetarian references actually detract from our understanding. George claims dodgeball is a “release” – from what, if his problem is lack of emotion? His passion for vegetarianism also seems misplaced.
At the beginning of the play, we are treated to what appears to be a typical “meet-cute,” and it is very cute. This scene is adorable, charming and very entertaining, and makes you root for the two crazy kids, but is also confusing in light of what is developed in terms of George’s character. On one hand, it’s important for us to see why Anabel likes George, otherwise her stalker-type behaviour is even harder to understand. But introducing us to a George who seems happy and flirty and fun seems incongruous with a man who has to look up “pleasure” in the dictionary. The subway behaviour that follows this initial interaction backs up the later interpretation of George’s character; it’s just the introduction of his character. The first impression does shape our expectations, for better or worse.
Though Anabel is likable, it’s a little uncomfortable seeing stalker-type behaviour be lauded by the play (particularly in a speech by George’s mother), as what people are “supposed” to feel. Emotions are necessary, yes, and her spirit is wonderful; it’s the actions that are problematic. Think about what the impression would be if the genders were reversed; Anabel’s behaviour would suddenly be creepy and frightening. Getting over the initial reaction, however, it’s important to realize that none of these characters are fully “reliable,” and some of what the show appears to be commenting on is that each one of them has trouble with heart; Anabel has too much heart, George has far too little – a false heart - and Mona has a broken one that doesn’t work correctly. It is up to them to communicate with each other and find a sense of balance; Anabel and George with their new connection, and Mona with her date.
In terms of the progression, some characters’ reversals of heart (or lack thereof) seem quick and unexplained, the rationale building to them somewhat muddled. This is something that could be developed, particularly because Lederer’s characters are so generally good at sharing their thoughts and feelings with us; it’s a matter of connecting the arc and smoothing the transitions.
As the characters have issues connecting with each other, sometimes we do too. The show is very committed to staying firmly in its created world, which is great, but it makes it more difficult for the audience to find an “in.” George’s self-discovery is where we finally start to connect, penetrating the somewhat difficult characters and quirk with emotional truth.
There is a great deal of raw potential in this play; it understands that, even if it’s a little messy, the most important thing about a piece of theatre is its beating heart.