Talkies may have cut off the short, electric rise of silent film, but who ever expected that the long-lost genre would be resurrected, decades in the future, to flicker again -- not up on the silver screen, but on the stage? And that the result would be so modern and finely tuned? Librettist Laurence Klavan and composer Polly Pen achieved this magic in their singular Obie-winner Bed and Sofa, a unique musical work based on Abram Room's 1927 Russian film of the same name -- a cramped, triangular cult comedy often touted as both scandalous and cinematically avant-garde for its time. Now director Don Berlin is staging the piece at Boulder's New Nomad Theatre, hoping to challenge local audiences in ways they've never been challenged before.
"I liked it because it's storytelling done in a very unusual way, through a combination of only singing and silence," Berlin explains, noting that Bed and Sofa, about a Moscow couple who take the husband's war buddy into their apartment during a housing crunch, is an example of the most solid kind of playwriting: Despite the operatic qualities, clipped, repetitive language and accoutrements of silent film that go into its staging, it's really about character development and a complicated three-way relationship convoluted further by the restrictive surroundings in which it blossoms. "This is a show that causes audiences to really think and examine relationships," he says. "And I think they'll find it surprising that, for something originally created in 1927, how incredibly relevant the situations seem to still be in the year 2000."
For Berlin, the process of finding a way to successfully bring the show to life in the immediate fashion he describes began when he saw Room's film in a New York screening. "It is a stunning, spectacular work of film, way ahead of its time in terms of its frank depiction of sex and modern Soviet life," he says. "Room told the story through many small, beautiful images, and seeing the film inspired me to infuse my piece with the same types of small, beautiful moments." An example of his follow-through? "Here's something I really love," Berlin begins. "In one scene, two characters get to go to the movies, and it's one of the first times the feminine lead has been to see a movie. We have several minutes with them watching and experiencing the film, which turns out to be Charlie Chaplin. The ability to work with an actress who can really take the audience with her to that place and experience the things that are funny and exciting and sad to her -- that's wonderful." Berlin notes admiringly that Karen LaMoureaux -- who plays the sweet yet eventually bold female lead, Ludmilla (she's been called a prototypical feminist) -- amply fills the bill, playing her character with believable subtlety and empathy.
A good cast is essential in a three-person show, especially one this tautly strung, and Berlin feels he found one: "Because the show is about subtext and portraying emotions in a nonverbal way, I looked for people who could find several layers in their characters," he says. David Ambroson, Nitzan Sitzer and LaMoureaux reveal the cohabiting trio with inimitable skills -- from LaMoureaux's "less is more" strategies to Sitzer's wordless physicality -- that allow such depth without falling into caricature. Add to that groundwork a voyeuristic-feeling set, monochromatic lighting in blues and grays blocked to emulate the fading in and out of real silent cinema, and, well, you begin to get the picture. "It looks and feels like a silent film without having a pantomime style," Berlin adds. "The acting style is actually very realistic."
The first opera he's directed, Bed and Sofa may just be Berlin's greatest challenge yet. "When I first read about the play, I started calling it a 'silent movie musical,' thinking of it more as a storytelling vehicle than an opera," he says. "But there's a lot of meat here. The more I directed, the more I discovered, no, it really is an opera. But within an opera score built with such artistic precision, even though you want to follow, you also have be able to break outside, to bring your own flair and touch to it."
In that respect, he thinks it's a winner: "God, it's been great. I love working with a small cast, and with three such talented individuals, it's breathtaking to give them the foundation and then just let them go to work. I'm extremely proud of the show. It's caused me to stretch, and thankfully, that stretch has been a beautiful growth. I guess I always think, with every show I do, 'This is the best thing I've ever done.' This one is not an exception." -- Froyd