Sunday, September 1, 2013

Review of "The Pianist of Willesden Lane"

"The Pianist of Willesden Lane"
An adaptation of the story The Children of Willesden Lane co-written by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen
Royal George Theater, Chicago
August 31, 2013

The Pianist of Willesden Lane is a one-woman show where Mona Golabek tells her mother's story of being forced out of her homeland as a child at the hand of the Nazis (because they didn't want Jews taking piano lessons) and her personal struggle in fulfilling her dream of playing the Grieg piano concerto in her debut as a concert pianist.

A few things came to mind during this 90 minute piece.

  • No matter how much I learn, there's no limit to the depths of depression of the holocaust. It's like a bottomless chasm of miserable, depressing stories of wretched. We could probably go back in time and pick any person from any country in the world at that time and they could tell a sad and powerful story. The world in that time must have been full of sad stories, and this is one more.
  • I hope it doesn't make me a terrible person for saying that I don't know how many more holocaust stories made into dramatic art I can handle. 
  • Some people are better writers than actors, and some people are better musicians than performers. Mona Golabek is probably best as a pianist. 
  • A live performance of Debussy's Claire de Lune as musical accompaniment to film of Jews being marched through the streets of Nazi-occupied Austria is offensive to me. Ethereal french impressionism tends to make me think I'm supposed to be watching genocide through rose colored glasses. That kind of juxtaposition strikes me as sarcastic, implying there's something I shouldn't take seriously, Debussy, or the Holocaust. I rail at that choice. 
  • Also, the closing piece for a similar reason. I don't want to spoil it for you, but a loud, bombastic close cheapens the overall emotional effect of this piece.
Mrs. Golabek's acting was well rehearsed, and the story was soundly told, but she always gave the impression that she was telling us a story, rather than reliving a tale. Granted, her mediocre acting (stilted gestures, occasionally awkward body language, unnatural sounding vocal transitions and sophomoric use of focal points when differentiating characters) was very good for a classical pianist, but it was not good enough to stay out of the way of the subject matter, and I often found myself being pulled out of the action of the show because of it. 

I think the story would have benefited from being told by someone trained as a pianist and actor. Granted, having written the book on which this was adapted, I am absolutely certain that the whole show was crafted specifically for her, but I think the it would have been tenfold more convincing in the hands of a skilled actor. Granted, this story is about her mother's life, and no actor could have the authenticity, that she has–after all, as I said, Mrs. Golabek literally wrote the book–but if it had been done by a better actor, as far as the storytelling goes, we wouldn't have known the difference. And isn't the reason this is being performed in the first place is to tell her mother's story? Not as a personal vehicle for Mona Golabek's performance career? If the positions were reversed, I hope I wouldn't be so much of an opportunist to use my mother's holocaust story just to sell tickets.

This work proved that a good story doesn't have to be well written.