Last weekend I went to see Café Variations at Arts Emerson, directed by Anne Bogart with music by the Gershwins and text by Charles Mee. The piece was collaboration between the Siti Company and Emerson musical theatre students. I found it to be a breathtakingly beautiful piece both aesthetically and in its subject matter, which explored the nature of love and relationships through a poignant melding of old and new.
The piece used old classic love songs by the Gershwins in conjunction with modern theatre techniques such as viewpoints, modern dance, and contemporary dialogue by Charles Mee. This melding of old and new, rather than feeling incongruous, gave the subject matter both a timeless feeling and a specific world in which to live. We understand that we are in the American Café: a café where anything can happen, where indeed, we expect it to. There were older professional actors in the show side by side with young students, which heightened the multi-generational, timeless landscape of the piece. Throughout the show I kept wishing that my grandparents could be in the audience with me, and yet I was equally as engaged as I think that they would be. Part of my great desire for them to be sitting there next to me in the audience, I think was because of the accessibility of this modern, important piece of theatre for their generation. They are used to seeing big musicals, and often I worry that if they were to see one of my shows, they would not relate to it or understand it at all. Café variations I knew that they would love for its music, but I also felt that through that point of access they would be moved by the viewpoints work at play and the Chuck Mee scenes. The piece created an appreciation for old and new theatre practices.
I was inspired by the concept of this piece. Taking a location, a theme, and vocabularies from which to draw creates an exciting playing ground for collaboration. The company gave itself a very clear container within which to play, and because of this their work was very deep and specific. The location, a café, the theme love/relationships, and the vocabularies were; movement, Gershwin Music, and Chuck Mee café scenes. Because of this simple set up, the piece was very easy to access, who hasn’t been in a café? Felt love? Heard a Gershwin song? But it was also very specific because the artists that they are drawing from have very specific vocabularies. Also using viewpoints as a creation tool gave it a clear, heightened, yet very human movement vocabulary. I admire Charles Mee so much for making his work available, his willingness to share his work makes it possible to have pieces such as this. His text was re-imagined and re-contextualized, but I felt that it spoke as strongly as ever, and each scene was meaningful in contrast with the others.
The story of the piece was told as a cumulative collection of images. Several different stories wove together to make one. I felt very at ease, which put me as the audience member in an open place to receive the work and let the images wash over me, which is how the storytelling of this piece happens. When I reflect back on what stood out to me most, it is a viewpoints movement piece, a scene, a dance, and a song. Each element of creation was integral and memorable. Some scenes were pleasant, some shocking, and some heartbreaking. The show follows the general trajectory of a typical relationship. Meeting, falling in love, heartbreak, and then the search begins again or deepens with that same person.
There were no gay relationships clearly included until about three quarters of the way through the piece. For a while I thought that no LGBTQ couples were going to be portrayed and I was getting a little sad and angry in my seat. I didn’t want to believe that this beautiful work could fail so blatantly to reflect the American experience. However, right when I was feeling that most strongly, a gay couple appeared and listened to a classic Gershwin song, sharing a beautiful, intimate moment with only them onstage being serenaded by the singer. They were in formal attire as all the characters had been thus far, suits, looking classy. Shortly after a crossing happened with a woman and man both in drag. And I could breathe a sigh of relief. Queer experience was not discounted from this show! They just saved it up to near the end. I think for many audience members this served to ease these themes in, normalizing them as part of love. At this point the piece had already won them over, so it’s safe to introduce more controversial themes into this upper class, old-fashioned café world. By putting gay love in this world, is acknowledges that it too is tieless, not a ‘modern issue’. And for audience members like me, it made their absence very noticeable up until that point. Calling attention to their lack of representation perhaps tells the story of how gay couples could maybe not be so out in the Gershwin early 40s period as they can be today.
The play uses all songs from ‘The American Songbook’, with the exception of ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, also by Gershwin, which underscores much of the piece in the spaces between the musical numbers. In talking about how he composed ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ to his first biographer, Isaac Goldberg, in 1931, he said,
“It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang, that is so often so stimulating to a composer – I frequently hear music in the very heart of the noise… And there I suddenly heard, and even saw on paper – the complete construction of the Rhapsody, from beginning to end. No new themes came to me, but I worked on the thematic material already in my mind and tried to conceive the composition as a whole. I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness. By the time I reached Boston I had a definite plot of the piece, as distinguished from its actual substance.” (Cowen, Ron (1998), “George Gershwin: He Got Rhythm” The Washington Post Online).
One can feel in the piece the underpinnings of this idea of America as a vast, quickly moving, melting pot. Indeed Café Variations as a whole is a melting pot of different artists and styles, and there is something about it that feels very American. It is a kaleidoscope of its own, through which we see the American Experience. A huge part of which is waiting for or actively seeking love and relationships. Perhaps it is this “metropolitan madness” that George describes that comes through so stunningly in the piece. It is an urban piece. It is interesting to me that he composed this on a train. A train is a liminal space, a vehicle of transportation from one place to another, the same way that any good play is. Cafés are also liminal spaces, and the piece shows us how they can be incredibly transportive, particularly in that the potential for a life changing relationship is waiting there. And relationships, we all know, are incredibly transformative. Love is a journey. All of the elements of the play come together to make it a carrying vehicle, an exploration of how we become ourselves, often through our relationships with others.
The set was incredibly elegant, an homage to old timey America as is the Music and the whole piece in general. The costumes too supported this vision. However, the work still felt modern and relevant. Much of the movement in the piece was very lyrical, in line with that old time America feel, but many numbers in the piece broke that feeling, with percussive movement and literal physical fighting. The piece to me did not feel dated but rather, timeless. It was a crowd pleaser, but that does not necessarily mean it was not at all challenging. While it perhaps did not inspire me to revolution, it did bring me joy and make me think about what it is to be American. It was very entertaining. When I came to BU four years ago, I tended to look down on a piece if it was not a call to action of some kind or if it was merely ‘entertaining’. I still sometimes do this. However, I am beginning to see that entertaining work is as necessary as intensely moving or thought provoking work and indeed one does not exclude the other. Theatre that is ‘entertaining’ and does not then present controversial material is still valid. It still fosters collaboration and community, and smiling is not such a bad thing! Also Café Variations was revolutionary to me because it showed me how one can so flawlessly and beautifully blend styles to create a new, clear, and exciting world. I thoroughly enjoyed watching it and was very moved by its sheer beauty upon exiting the theatre. I was changed chemically; I saw beauty and grace everywhere as I left.
In a ‘Behind the scenes’ video that documented the making of Café Variations, an Emerson student involved in the piece said of Anne’s Direction that it was like she was “painting a picture instead of directing a piece of theatre”. The images are indeed what stayed with me most.