LECTURE, WITH CELLO
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 9, 2008
Robert Moulthrop's Lecture, with Cello is a tantalizing puzzle of a play. It's a mystery story, or maybe even two mysteries—as it begins, we are wondering: who is this professor who has arrived on stage so hesitantly and seemingly pre-occupied, and why is he lecturing us, and where is his cello? An hour later, as the piece reaches its conclusion, and we have received many clues about what this man may or may not have done, the questions are more concrete: what is real in this man's tale, and what is illusory? Is he sane?
Meanwhile, beneath and hovering all around the garden-variety questions posed by the circumstance are fragments of enigmas that, for me, are the most exciting and interesting aspects of this supposed Lecture. When we enter the theatre, the stage is set for a recital by a string quintet: there are chairs and music stands arranged in a semi-circle, and the promise of a "Lecture, with Cello" projected on a screen behind them. But when our protagonist makes his entrance—apparently as surprised as we that five musicians haven't materialized—he compensates for their absence in startling ways. He drags out a boom box and presses its play button; he sets up oversized placards, each displaying a painting of a specific string instrument; he brings forth sheets of music. I thought: are these representations of music, both analog and digital, ultimately different from the music itself?
Throughout the professor's monologue, Moulthrop revisits this fundamental question. What is art? Does it lie in its physical manifestations, or in someone's brain; and if the latter, whose brain—the creator's or the observer's? One of the most fascinating sections of Lecture, with Cello is a deconstruction (quite literally) of the cello. I thought: what a marvel, that someone was able to figure out how to put together all these pieces of wood, glue, string, resin, and hair in just this precise way, so that glorious music could emanate from them.
Another highlight for me was the consideration of music, like light, as both particle and wave—the sound's physical form obviously being the latter, but its representation on paper, as musical notes, being the former.
Moulthrop's piece is thus a remarkable feast for the intellect, brimming with ideas that help us look at what we take for granted in art in new and compelling ways. So I was somewhat disappointed that the character of the professor proves not to be so interestingly resolved here. But, under Kent Paul's expert direction, Timothy Babcock makes this man consistently engaging and empathetic, even as the hints of his madness are peeled away. (Babcock's work in this solo performance is astonishingly good.)
The press release for Lecture, with Cello describes the play as an "exploration of the conjunction of madness, violence, and art." Maybe it's just me, but I mostly stayed focused on the subject of art on its own, and reveled in the piece's rich meditations on where it is to be found.