Playwright: Carson Grace Becker
& David Barr III
At: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn
Phone: (312) 443-3800; $10-$40
Runs through: March 16
For our premise, we have two orphaned half-siblings—Katherine, the daughter of a white plantation owner, and Nicholas, fathered by that same sire and a voodooienne slave—both deaf, the former believed to have second sight (she was born with a caul, you see) but presently suffering from amnesia, delivered from their native Virginia in 1870 following the Civil War to a Massachusetts mental asylum where the therapies are much the same as those of Charenton in 1808.
For our plot, we have Ellenore, a wrongfully incarcerated protofeminist matron whose deaf sister taught her the sign language that enables her to communicate with the misunderstood waifs, to the annoyance of Thomas, their brutal warden, and the curiosity of Dr. Newholm, the institution's weasely head physician—the latter of whom provide us with our villains.
Finally, for our deus-ex-machina, we have a traveling Negro minstrel show and a visiting doctor offering to take them home with him to England.
No argument: playwrights Carson Grace Becker and David Barr III are asking us to suspend a prodigious amount of disbelief—did I mention that Nicholas is a skilled dancer/mime and that everyone speaks with the lyrical eloquence of poets? But once we acclimate to the elevated realism of our play's universe, our eagerness to learn the fate of its disenfranchised protagonists eclipses our dismay at the complexity of its literary conceits. All, that is, except the jarring Brechtian affectations—a Marat/ Sade opening tableau, a recitation of a quasi-Langston Hughes poem, and minstrelsy performed with leaden irony to ensure that the jokes (which are not race-specific) provoke no accidental laughter.
Under the capable direction of Chuck Smith, Antoinette Abbamonte and Fred Michael Beam lead a bilingual ensemble (including a pair of costumed interpreters) who toil mightily to lend cohesion to a text sometimes too obviously cobbled together from separate artistic concepts. In particular, Arlene Malinowski's issue-encumbered Ellenore and Troy West's enigmatic Thomas (who begins as a seven-carat sonofabitch and finishes as another Victim Of Society). But what By The Music Of The Spheres lacks in coherence, it redeems in the delicate spectacle generated by a—well, steller company of artists.