Next week we’ll bring a show to ArtsEmerson that’s truly hard to compare to other productions (we couldn’t think of one quite like it) and most certainly difficult to describe. This is so much the case that I traveled to Philadelphia last week to catch a performance in order to try to better describe to you, our audience, what the show is like. I’m about to make that attempt, but I don’t want to bury the lede: Chopin Without Piano is a moving, funny, beautiful new form of theatre.
So what happens? As the audience gets settled, performer Barbara Wysocka stands before a grand piano covered in papers, books, sheet music and journals. Behind her, a 46-piece orchestra poised behind their instruments begins to perform “Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 11.” She looks as if she’s about to join them on the piano, but instead she starts to speak where the piano notes should appear. “Exposition of the majestic theme,” she says, “It has to be played fortissimo….this is not a repetition but a dialog.”
Over the next ninety minutes, Wysocka will offer a stunning analysis of Chopin’s compositions, she will embody the artist by speaking his own words, and even give voice to the people who tried to hijack his music for their own purposes, too. The cumulative effect is surprisingly emotional.
That’s not to say that this is show is overly serious. Wysocka smiles knowingly into the audience, directly addressing us, and the break neck speaking pace she must maintain to keep up with the music is often a source of great laughter. At times she winks at the conductor and at one point even walks over to reference his sheet music, patting him on the behind with a book she’s holding.
There are so many ideas about composition, fandom, artistry, and the function of music packed into Wysocka’s monologue here that it’s impossible to comprehend it all in one sitting. I would highly encourage audiences to go on this ride and retain whatever sticks with them, or in other words, to not stress if things fly by a mile a minute, not fully digested. Like Wysocka delcares in the beginning of the performance, “repetition grounds us”, and she’ll repeat her most important points again and again throughout the show.
In this way, Chopin Without Piano functions like an old friend, up too late, making an impassioned argument about their point of view of a certain artist, but the artist in question is Chopin and the friend is soundtracked by a full orchestra. When I think of the show in those terms, the only word I can use to describe it is brilliant.
Image from Swathmore’s CWP program, “200-Year Anniversary of Chopin, poster, 2010”