Song of a Convalescent Ayn Rand Giving Thanks to the Godhead (in the Lydian Mode)
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 16, 2012
If I were more of a classical musical guy, I would have recognized that the title of this latest theater piece from Wolf 359 riffs on the name of a Beethoven composition (the third movement of his String Quartet No. 15; read this).
No, I'm definitely more of a politics guy, and so the name Ayn Rand is what leaps out for me from the moniker Song of a Convalescent Ayn Rand Giving Thanks to the Godhead (in the Lydian Mode). With famous Ayn Rand fan Paul Ryan running for the nation's #2 job, this new work by Michael Yates Crowley and Michael Rau looked to be timely and informative...which it is, but not for that reason.
Song is inspired by Crowley's migraine diary. He has suffered from migraines for most of his life, and one of the treatment ideas for this incurable, enigmatic condition is to keep detailed notes about each occurrence. What was the weather like that day? what did you eat? where did you go?—the notion is that eventually correlations may emerge and the source of the trouble may be identified.
At the outset, Crowley (author and main performer) and Rau (director and supporting performer) suggest that this show is a kind of staged presentation of Crowley's diary. But that's quickly shown not to be the case, as the piece pulls back from the particular to encompass, instead, a collage of scenes, songs, and monologues about art, pain, and responsibility. Crowley plays several main characters in addition to himself: a doctor specializing in treating migraines; a drag queen who is making his/her stage debut emceeing a strip show in Peoria, Illinois; and an academic delivering a speech about Ayn Rand's views on pain at a Rand conference.
Rand herself also appears, as does Beethoven at one point. (And the String Quartet mentioned above, and its creation at a time when the master was about to enter the final, painful years of his life, serves as the essential motif that runs through the story.)
Crowley's writing is smart and often gorgeous, his performance (as always) masterfully precise and affecting. This is a terrific showcase for his versatility as a theater artist. The disparate elements of the piece create a dance that's fascinating to experience, engage with, and contemplate; like some of the best art they don't try to coalesce into a statement about this or that, but rather set the auditor's mind ablaze with new ideas and connections.
Rau's performance, as fully visible man-behind-the-curtain, narrating and occasionally taking on a specific role (notably the doctor's playful nurse), is jarring—deliberately so, I believe. It seemed calculated to pull us back from whatever was going on at any particular moment, but I never understood why.
I left Song curious about migraines and wondering how much of Crowley's already prodigious output as a theater artist has been curtailed by them. I was also inspired by the courage and joy that Crowley finds in Beethoven and in the confused dreams and songs of his drag creation Tinky Holloway. I was not, however, better informed about Rand or Ryan; knowing things about Rand's work will undoubtedly enhance your experience of this play, in fact. That particular expectation of mine—pretty much unsupported by advance materials, by the way—reveals stuff about me but not about the art.