melancholy without the infinite sadness

A new USF play harkens back to a theatrical time of lush, melodramatic emotions when feelings of sorrow would be joyfully indulged onstage.

But Thursday’s opening of “Melancholy Play” means more than just a new throwback to old melodramas.

It also represents the completion of a nearly yearlong student project, the first time since 2006 that USF’s theater department has put on summer productions, and the continuation of Chicago-based playwright Sarah Ruhl’s soaring popularity.

The show’s beginnings came from a USF Honors Theater class.

In fall 2009, the course’s students read off-Broadway plays before choosing two to start producing in the spring.

Director and theater performance major Erin Morris said she fell in love with Ruhl’s writing and picked “Melancholy Play” as her debut directing job.

From there, she began fleshing out her cast of six characters, who are described in the original play only by their first names and occupations.

“Melancholy Play” follows Tilly, a bank-teller who views her life’s events through what Morris calls “a decadent sadness.”

Characters surrounding her, including the European-accented psychiatrist Lorenzo, become infatuated with her exaggerated melancholy.

As this newfound attention brings Tilly unforeseen happiness, her admirers grow distraught that her sad sighs and poetic woe are disappearing.

Morris said these frequent fits of emotion form the backbone for the comical farce’s plot – which eventually reaches its absurdist, impossible heights.

“I don’t want to give away too much, but someone may or may not turn into an almond,” Morris said.

Recent USF graduate Nick Horan plays the lead male character, Frank.

For his performance, Horan said he watched old Joan Crawford movies and even listened to ’40s music while driving to rehearsals in order to capture the piece’s rhythm.

“People in modern times are very staccato in their movements – they’re very sharp and everything is quick,” Horan said. “Whereas in melodrama, it’s almost as if you’re swimming and moving in water or moving in space in a very elegant, slow, precise way.”

Yet Morris said she wanted the show to have a timeless feel. The original play is set in modern-day Illinois, but it includes no cultural references linking it to either the past or present.

Morris additionally recruited student cellist Brian Smith to perform as both the musician Julian and the play’s steady backing soundtrack.

Smith’s cello string instrumentation slows or surges to match the pace of the actors’ monologues.

She said that it was difficult initially to keep the theatrical and musical language on the same page.

“I would say things to my actors … and the cellist would be like, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about,’ and I’d have to put it in layman’s terms so he would understand,” Morris said. “Then he would go, ‘Oh, you want me to play the Fermata with a D flat and a tarantella?’ And it was just gibberish to me.”

Overall, Morris said that audiences expecting something dour from the comedic play will leave pleasantly surprised, and that sometimes sadness should be cheerfully embraced.

“When you hear the word melancholy, you automatically think of someone in a dark room with the windows drawn and sad music, and someone crying over a bowl of Ben and Jerry’s,” Morris said. “But one thing that’s different in this show is that melancholy is a beautiful thing.”

According to Creative Loafing, Ruhl has had three of her plays reproduced in Tampa in the past two weeks alone.

The Orpheus myth reimagining “Eurydice” finished its run at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts on May 26, and “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” opens downtown on the same night as “Melancholy Play.”

Heather Clark, a senior theater performance major and the actress portraying the hairdresser Frances, said that Ruhl’s uniquely quirky style and strong female roles have helped her stand out.

“I think Sarah Ruhl has ruled Tampa Bay for sure this summer and in the past few months,” Clark said.

USF School of Theatre and Dance director Marc Powers said that the department extended the end dates for Honors Theater productions into the Summer A Session so students would have more time to concentrate and focus.

“That’s sort of a new thing,” Powers said. “We wanted these to have a little more depth to them, a little more scale – where there weren’t conflicts in schedules.”

This summer’s other Honors Theater production, the shaggy North Carolina comedy-drama “Animals and Plants,” completed its own four-day run May 26.

“It’s definitely the best thing I’ve done here at USF, is be a part of this honors production,” Clark said.

“Melancholy Play” runs Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. in TAR 120. Tickets cost $10 for students and $15 for general admission.