Tom Stoppard’s New Play Is Worth Seeing!

Filed under: Arts,Arts and Entertainment |

By Bonnie Squires

Tom Stoppard’s newest play, “The Hard Problem”, at the Wilma Theater, challenges the audience in many ways, but allows us to understand some of his characters’ dilemmas.  It takes a minute or so to figure out that the people seated in rows behind the stage but visible throughout the production are, in fact, other audience members.

THE HARD PROBLEM, The Tom Stoppard new play at the WIlma Theater, through Feb. 6, features Sarah Gliko, seen here with Michael Pedicin, who plays his haunting saxophone in between scenes. Photo by Bonnie Squires

THE HARD PROBLEM, The Tom Stoppard new play at the WIlma Theater, through Feb. 6, features Sarah Gliko, seen here with Michael Pedicin, who plays his haunting saxophone in between scenes. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev

And Michael Pedicin wanders across the stage from time to time, playing the most mournful, beautiful sounds on his saxophone, underscoring the main character’s complex problems.  The musical interludes also indicate scene changes.  Very clever.
Blanka Zizka has done it again.  The founding artistic director of the Wilma seems to have a monopoly on U.S. premieres of Stoppard’s works, and the collaboration always works well.  This time, Sarah Gliko, as Hilary, the young psychology graduate who carries a painful secret around while she competes for a prestigious post at the Krohl Institute for Brain Science, leads the quest for answers to complex problems about the mind..
The outstanding cast, which includes Ross Beschler as Spike, Hilary’s tutor but also sometime lover; Lindsay Smiling as a colleague, Leo; and Steven Rishard as Jerry, the founder and head of the institute, who also has a gym and yoga instructor as part of the institute’s offerings, have varying degrees of devotion to the Kruhl Institute and its work..
There is a lot of analyzing and arguing about “altruism” and good and evil.  But for me, the music played by Michael Pedicin, which weaves together every scene and every character, was the most interesting creation.
We interviewed Daniel Perelstein, the composer and sound director for The Hard Problem, and his answers to my questions about how and why he created the solos for Pedicin were fascinating.  So I will share his answers with you.
Perelstein said, “Michael Pedicin, like myself, is a freelance artist hired by Blanka and the Wilma for this production. Blanka hired me as composer and sound designer for this production of The Hard Problem. As our early design discussions unfolded, she proposed that we have live music in the production. I’ve been Blanka’s composer on a number of previous Wilma plays, and this idea has come up before, and is part of larger ongoing discussions between myself and Blanka about the craft of writing music for theater.
“This time, Blanka and the powers-that-be decided that they would be able to bring on a live musician for the production.
“We discussed having a woodwind player, and we determined that tenor sax would be useful, as it most closely mimics the emotional (and tonal) range of the human voice. We reached out to some mutual contacts and found a list of musicians who we interviewed, first by phone, then in person, to find the right musician for the project.
“At this point, the play didn’t include any indications of musical style or any musical specifics. Just like most scripts I read, it’s up to myself and the director to make decisions about the musical vocabulary of the play. In the previous production of The Hard Problem (the world premiere in London), the sound designer decided to use music by Bach for the transition music.
“Through discussions with Blanka, and work in the rehearsal room, I decided on a concept for the musical compositions that achieved Blanka’s wishes for the emotional / metaphorical vision for the production’s music. The concept is as follows:
“I composed a series of looping tenor saxophone lines, which repeat on top of themselves into these looping post-tonal ambient beds.  Michael performs each of those compositions live over the first few musical moments in the show.  As he performs them, they are recorded live each night, and played back so that the sounds he is recording loops on top of the next musical line that he performs.
“Up until this point, everything is strictly ‘composed’ (by myself) — the compositions were constructed with this principle in mind, so that they create the sound you heard in the play. As to your specific question, yes, all of these compositions are notated, and Michael memorized them from the sheet music I prepared for him.
“Each night, after the composed loops are recorded and playing back live, Michael improvises over the looping occurrences that he has just recorded. Michael’s improvisations are based both on a pair of melodies that I composed and asked him to improvise with, and also on his free associations as an improvising musician.
“Michael and I worked throughout the preview period to continue to make sure that his improvised choices serve the larger arc of the emotional storytelling in the play.  The process was a wonderful mixture of composed music by myself and improvisations by Michael Pedicin, tailored to the production.
“It’s not actually dissimilar to the composer / improviser relationship in most jazz music (for instance, a composer composes content and the bandleader works with the musicians to make sure their improvisations both establish the composed musical material and elaborate on the composed material), although I’d discourage you from drawing too many parallels between the music in The Hard Problem and any jazz references, as, like you heard, it’s clearly not jazz music per se.
“Oh, one last answer — I haven’t titled the music. I never title music that I write for plays, except for the functional titles (“Transition from Scene 1 to 2″, for instance) that allow me to keep things straight in terms of bookkeeping during the complicated technical rehearsal process.”
The Hard Problem runs through February 6 at the Wilma Theater on Broad Street.  Be sure to see it and pay close attention to Pedicin’s saxophone soliloquies, and see how they actually comment on Hilary’s struggles.

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