Appoggiatura

Over the weekend, I went to see a new production at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, called “Appoggiatura.” I didn’t know much about it, but ever since the season was announced, I’ve been itching to see it. Something about the description just spoke to me:

Written by three-time Pulitzer nominee James Still, Appoggiatura follows three closely related Americans, each nursing a hunger and a hard-to-heal wound, as they travel to the romantic city of Venice seeking solace. As time bends and magic beckons around the corner, this favorite of the Colorado New Play Summit weaves a quirky and lyrical narrative exploring love, loss and the human soul.

I somehow knew it wouldn’t be the sort of thing that my regular theater companions would enjoy, and I think I was right about that, so I invited a book-, music-, and theater-loving friend to join me. (Let me pause here to give thanks that when I see something like this that intrigues me, I’m in a position to explore it with a friend, rather than just wonder about it, the way I have done for most of my adult life. Also for my regular theater companions, a luxury of the first order and one that I don’t take for granted.)

My friend and I met for a nice dinner and walked over to the theater. It was nice to take time to catch up with each other, something we’re not always in a position to do. I didn’t notice it until intermission, but if I’d been a little more aware, I’d have seen that the theater lobby was decorated to reinforce the look and feel of the play, with laundry strewn on clotheslines, Venetian signs and flourishes all around.

I enjoyed the play itself, which deftly explored the emotional terrain of bereavement, agency in a relationship, forgiveness, and other serious themes, but rather than engaging primarily with that, let me say that I loved the way they staged this play. There were three main characters— the three Americans mentioned in the synopsis, and then a sort of chorus of strolling musicians, and a tour guide. But the strolling musicians became much more, each playing alternate characters (sometimes major characters, some of them unnamed, and sometimes only adding sound effects, but one of them seemed to be acting as Fate), and two of the set characters played other roles. It was layered and complex and interesting, to follow the characters as they met and remet, recognized the familiarity and the strangeness.

In addition, the set was fairly spare— some white, arched doorways, on which various Venetian scenes (an interior room, a piazza, other streets) were projected. I loved that about it. It was very creatively undertaken.

Finally, I love that it’s nearly impossible to pin down a description (which is why I didn’t try.) It’s comic without being a comedy, dramatic without being a drama, musical without being a musical. Although my life experience relates specifically to that of none of the main characters, I recognized an emotional kinship with each of them, in various moments.

My very favorite art changes my understanding of what a medium can do— I love that A.S. Byatt’s Possession is so much more than a novel represented to me, before I read it; that Handel’s “Messiah” is part choral work and part of tapping into a spiritual vein deeper than I ever knew existed. To be clear, I’m not sure that “Appoggiatura” shares the enduring greatness of those works, but it does expand the art form for me in that way, and does it with a refreshingly light energy. In many ways, it’s what I go to theater to experience. With which it is very hard to argue.

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