12ness – Theatre Review June 11

It’s been a weekend of enjoying more art “Made in Bethlehem.” Friday night at Godfrey Daniels, I was soaking in the “front porch” feel of good ol’ folk music by Tom and Betty Drunkenmiller with Norm Williams. It was a perfect night for some laid back classics and good stories. I was feeling a bit too much of a summer cold to enjoy any fun on Saturday (especially the Food Truck Boarder Brawl at ArtsQuest), but grateful to feel better to take in a play at the Ice House this afternoon.

Local theatre company, Crowded Kitchen Players premiered an original piece written by local playwright, Charlie Barnett. The play was directed by Selkie Theatre’s George Miller.

12ness is a play that recounts the historical relationship between two influential musicians, Arnold Schoenberg and George Gershwin. The play features wonderfully written dialogue that sounds as natural as if the audience were secretly transported in a time machine to 1937 Los Angeles.

The minimal sets, vintage costumes, and sound design also brought a touch of classic Hollywood that helped the audience sink back in time and get to know the characters even without too much “scholastic” knowledge.

I’ve studied lots of music history, required of my academic music degrees. But it’s not a requirement to know those details to thoroughly enjoy the relationship between the four characters. Yet, all of that knowledge that was crammed into my head for the doctoral comprehensive exams came leaking back to the front of my brain and I was able to catch most of the references to the number 12, and a few double reed jokes seemingly written with full knowledge of the quirky personalities that result from too much air pressure. (Reader, I play the bassoon.)

If you go, here would be my comments to put more context into some of the text:
  1. 12 tone composition (Dodecaphonic)  was designed by Arnold Schoenberg. Otherwise known as “serialism,” a method of composing where notes only relate to each other. 12 tone uses all of the half steps within the octave. Schoenberg came to this way of constructing music after sensing that traditional western harmonic structure had pretty much played itself out. Think about the really long lines of a Wagner theme, and you might understand how the listener can lose the sense of tonal center. It was highly intellectual music; order, form, and function of a serial application also extended to length of note, or sometimes dynamic.
  2. There is a reference to the word “atonal” in the play. Listeners might apply this word to serial / 12tone music in that there is no tonal center typical of western music, such as in the key of B-flat. That doesn’t mean there’s no “tone” to the music.
  3. George Gershwin was at the height of his career in 1937; the same year he died from a brain tumor.

In looking for some ideas for this review, I found this 1 minute comment about Gerswhin by Schoeberg himself. The video features a still image of Gershwin painting Schoenberg’s portrait. If you are so moved, stick around for the video that follows. It’s silent home movie shot by Gershwin, accompanied by Schoenberg’s String Quartet.

The play doesn’t just focus on music. The play also shows how they may have talked about art, the senses, and the creative process. If you ever wonder what artists might be thinking about the way they create, or how they perceive value of their work – this play is a fabulous conversation starter with friends.

12Ness runs for another weekend at the Bethlehem Charles Brown IceHouse, 56 River Street, near the Wooden Match or Artisan. Make a night of it with dinner at any of the lovely restaurants on Main street before hand. Performance begins at 8pm on Friday, June 16 and Saturday, June 17th. The final show is Sunday, June 18th at 2pm.

Notes for further inspiration:
  1. There have been a few academics who have presented research on the relationship between these two composers. This play offers an imagination into their conversations about art. What I found so wonderful, is that these kinds of conversations happen today. Robert Wyatt & John Johnson wrote a book, “The Gershwin Reader” that includes a chapter about this friendship. There happens to be copies of this book in the libraries of all six independent colleges in the Lehigh Valley. I think the next time I go strolling through the stacks, I’ll seek this out.
  2. There is a copy of “Shall We Dance” at the Bethlehem Public Library. I just might pull that one out for a spin.
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