Monday, April 24, 2017

Seeing and Being Seen

I’m not particularly smart.
I’m not particularly beautiful.
But I suffer so well, and when
a stranger sees me cry-
they see a river they haven’t
swum in-
a river in a foreign country-
so they take off their trousers
and they jump in the water.
And they take pictures
with a water-proof camera
and then they dry themselves in the sun
but I’m still wet.

-Tilly’s Aria, Sarah Ruhl, Melancholy Play: A Chamber Musical

There is so much to say about Sarah Ruhl. So much, in fact, that the prospect of writing anything about her, or her work, is extremely daunting. But on the eve of the first day of load-in for Theatre KAPOW’s production of Melancholy Play: A Chamber Musical, I find myself thinking about what Ms. Ruhl has to say about seeing and being seen. Perception is integral to her work, both in terms of staging, and story.

On its surface, Melancholy Play pokes fun at human fascination with the tragic feminine. Its protagonist, Tilly, is so beautifully melancholic that everyone she meets falls in love with her. Chaos ensues when Tilly becomes happy and, far less alluring as a result. Melancholy Play mischievously confronts us with our societal fascination with, and objectification of, the melancholic female. But it also challenges us to ask why we are drawn to this trope. What is it about melancholy and sadness that we find attractive, and what happens when our expectations of melancholy do not line up with the far less romantic reality of sadness and depression? Tilly says it best when she asks, “Have you ever seen what sadness looks like on a person, once they take off their grey shoes and gloves? It looks different. Not like a movie. People wear sweatpants when they are sad in private. Not pearls.”

I do not think it is melancholy that makes Tilly attractive. Every character in Melancholy Play projects what he or she wants onto Tilly, because she sees them. Tilly looks carefully at each person she encounters; she strives to make connections. She feels things deeply. Tilly’s tragedy is that she knows she will never live up to the dream people impose on her. Dream Tilly wears pearls. Perhaps this is why she becomes melancholic and has to “lie down on the couch.” True connection is difficult when you feel people are looking at a version of you that doesn’t exist, when your name sounds wrong on their lips.

When Tilly becomes happy, when her focus is directed inward on her own sense of joy, she becomes less attractive. Frank, the man Tilly falls in love with and the catalyst for her happiness, tells her, “Your eyes aren’t looking at me. They’re looking at a great big storm of happiness. On the horizon. Can you see me?” It isn’t until one of Tilly’s friends becomes so depressed she essentially disappears into a shell, that everyone realizes how important it is to look at the people you care about and see them for who they truly are, not who you want them to be. When you see someone and they see you, it is easy to fall in love.

~ Emily Karel

Photos by Matthew Lomannp

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