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Theater Review: Minus Music


Published January 8, 2003 at 7:10 p.m.

Writer Dylan Thomas wondered about "the mystery of having been moved by words." Burlington poet Nora Mitchell is taking that concept a step further. Borrowing a phrase from another bard, Shakespeare, she has created "a rhapsody of words" by composing what is essentially a string quartet without any instruments. Minus Music, unfolding this Thursday at the FlynnSpace, is just what the title suggests, and more, given its subject matter: homophobia and intolerance.

The one-hour piece will be performed by four people reciting from Mitchell's libretto, in unison or in solos, duets and trios. The elliptical text sometimes overlaps, repeats itself and goes into counterpoint. Even though nobody is singing, this meticulously orchestrated work can seem downright musical.

At a recent rehearsal, the "chorus" -- dressed somberly in black and white -- sat in a row of chairs facing the audience, when not standing up to utter their lines. Far less flashy than at a poetry slam, the delivery comes without actions or gestures, largely because the actors hold scripts. Their voices, with some facial expressions to match, alternately convey fury, angst, terror, sorrow and longing.

"People think I'm a stop sign," they chant at one point, "but really I'm a dream of trees... but really I'm a hieroglyph, a coup d'etat, a cover-up."

That section of Mitchell's work explores the perspective of a boy bedeviled by the knowledge that he is gay. Other characters, presumably from the religious right, see his struggle as a war with Satan: "You will be damned eternally; you chose, you were not born this way."

If this sounds familiar, it may be because the Green Mountain State has been just that kind of battleground. "My inspiration came in the fall of 2000," explains Mitchell. "It was after the civil-union debate, when there were 'Take Back Vermont' signs everywhere."

She spent a month researching the subject in state archives, which yielded revealing dialogue from letters, petitions and testimony in legislative hearings. Some of Mitchell's passages evoke biblical incantations. She also drew from stories of people murdered for their sexual or gender identities -- among them Wyoming's Matthew Shepherd, in 1998 -- and other accounts of what it's like to grow up "different" in a straight world.

A year ago Mitchell, who is openly gay and a fan of chamber music, began to dramatize her ideas in a unique style that defies expectations. Her written stage directions ask the cast to employ "more considered, moderate tempo and energy" or to enunciate "softly and with menace" or, for a series of abstract lines, to "read sense into nonsense sensuously and with feeling." It's all music to her ears.

To create a baroque format and the lyrical approach of 12th-century songs, "I approximated fugue and ritornello with my poetry," Mitchell says, referring to two techniques in the classical genre. "I also used conventional poetic forms like the pantoum, the sestina and the villanelle. The poetic is closely connected to music in terms of rhythms and patterns."

This is heady stuff for the uninitiated. A sestina, for example, consists of six unrhymed stanzas, with six lines each, in which the concluding words of the first stanza reappear at the end of the following five in a successively rotating order. Got it? Doesn't matter. Mitch-ell's craft can be enjoyed at many levels.

The desire to stretch her considerable literary sensibility into an actual "rhapsody of words" hit home one day when Mitchell was commuting to Plainfield, where she taught writing at Goddard College. "I was listening to a CD of a string quartet and felt a little jealous," she recalls. "So the origin of Minus Music is envy."

Mitchell's own marginal piano skills were honed in a musical household -- "Everyone else in my family plays one or two instruments and sings," she says. They were an itinerant bunch, however. Her father's job as an engineer with the U.S. Agency for International Development involved a lot of globetrotting. "We lived in New York, New Jersey, Boston, overseas -- Seoul, Korea, from 1966 to 1968," the 46-year-old Mitchell recalls.

She settled down long enough to study at Dartmouth College, then opted for graduate work at Brandeis University. In 1991 Mitchell found herself at Goddard, where she ran the MFA in Writing Program for five years. Now her responsibilities include helping undergraduates make the transitions necessitated by the school's decision to eliminate an on-campus student body.

Mitchell has published two collections of poetry, Your Skin Is a Country and Proof-reading the Histories. She has also contributed to anthologies and prestigious journals such as Ploughshares.

When Mitchell began working on Minus Music, she couldn't determine if her script was on the right track without hearing it read aloud. So she recruited a neighbor -- Will Marquess, a St. Michael's College English instructor -- and members of her book-discussion group, only one of whom stuck with the process for the whole year.

Three of the current participants are employed at the Rock Point School in Burlington: Sara Beck George is a librarian who also teaches English and theater; Isaiah Robert Keepin tutors math; and John Rouleau serves as headmaster. "I wanted people with at least some music or drama experience," Mitchell says. "They got it down, figuring out how to make the same language either joyful or painful. Everyone offered suggestions. It's been a wonderfully collaborative effort."

Five years ago, Mitchell attended a University of Vermont class on the history of baroque music. Her preparations for the FlynnSpace debut have included perusing a handbook on classical forms. As the piece evolved, she organized about a dozen three-hour rehearsals, most of them in her South End living room, and slowly ironed out the wrinkles. "In some cases, the interplay of voices was too complex," Mitchell acknowledges. "At other times, the piece needed more unison. I had to be aware of the rises and falls and climaxes. It ended up being more dramatic and less musical than I'd envisioned."

The show begins and ends with fugue-like flourishes. In between, three "movements" address significant issues, particularly bigotry and violence. Throughout, Minus Music shifts to reflect the pronouncements, observations and inner conflicts of various characters:

"I am an abomination," laments one cast member, representing a boy who is in torment about his identity.

"You are an abomination," echoes another voice in the group, with the anti-gay zealotry of a televangelist.

"I am supposed to be a man," the "boy" cries. "What did the TV preacher say?"

As the work neared completion, Mitchell sought the advice of Joan Robinson, education director at the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts. "Nora had been thinking of the voices as instruments, but more emotional range was needed," Robinson explains. "The challenge in an oral presentation like this is to make sure the human voice plays all its notes with feeling."

A spoken choral piece is apparently rare. "Minus Music breaks new ground in terms of performance style," Robinson says. "I've seen a heck of a lot of stuff, but never anything quite like this. And Nora draws from genuine civil-union transcripts, which creates an immediacy because these events happened in our state. She also makes Matthew Shepard's life and death come closer. It's a compelling, provocative art form with a lot of meaning."

After a trial run at Goddard on Sunday, Mitchell welcomed additional critiques from friends before tackling this week's Burling-ton premiere. She hopes to record Minus Music on a CD and, perhaps, take the production to other cities around the region.

"I'm not a composer," concedes Mitchell, who delights in the mystery of moving people with words. "But, for me, this is an exciting experiment to see what I can do with poetry."