Poster Speechless
Masanari Kawahara and Dominique Serrand star in "Speechless."
Annie Galloway
Classical Minnesota Stories

In 'Speechless,' the Moving Company trades words for music

The artists behind the Moving Company have been drawn to classical music for a while. As Theatre de la Jeune Lune, they reinvented Mozart operas including The Marriage of Figaro and The Magic Flute. They based a chapter of last year's Refugia on the emigration of composer Arvo Pärt, featuring his Spiegel im Spiegel. Even when their plays are not about music, it almost always finds its way in — especially, for some reason, if there's a cello involved.

Their latest work, Speechless, is their first to rely solely on music and movement in place of words. Created in reaction to the last presidential election, the play premiered last fall to a strong response. The Star Tribune named it best play of 2017. Audience members often called it "cathartic." To give more people a chance to see it and to continue deepening the play, the Moving Company is remounting it at the Lab Theater in Minneapolis.

Here's a closer look at how the Twin Cities group crafted a play where classical music is a character in and of itself.

Music as voice

The play follows five people who are overwhelmed with grief after a funeral. Unable to find words, they wash dishes and make dinner, but everything seems to go wrong. Their mundane motions slip into the otherworldly, and as they work to rebuild and find hope, chamber music floats seamlessly in and out.

"This is really about people who are struck by grief, so they just choose not to speak; they can't speak, and they have each other to help that. And then the music sort of becomes their voice," said Nathan Keepers, co-artistic director and a show creator who also performs in the play.

"Speechless" features, from left, Heidi Bakke, Nathan Keepers, Dominique Serrand, Masanari Kawahara and Camille Chong Yuanya Horstmann.
Annie Galloway

In one tightly orchestrated moment, the group gathers around a table. Keepers peels potatoes in time with Schubert's Piano Trio No. 2 in E-Flat Major. Then artistic director Dominique Serrand brings a slicer onto each potato without missing a beat. Together, the music and movement make the scene absolutely hilarious.

The sounds and emotions go all across the map: Elgar's "Nimrod" from Enigma Variations floats us through the characters' moments of grief. Tchaikovsky's Hymn of the Cherubim turns their mishaps into epic failures. In one poignant scene where the characters comfort each other, a scratchy 1920s recording of Korngold's Die Tote Stadt plays, sung by Richard Tauber and Lotte Lehmann. The music and drama fit each other so well that it's hard to tell which came first.

Chicken and egg

In creating Speechless, the group's initial idea was to use one whole symphony to score the action, but finding the right piece was challenging, Keepers said. They found the symphonies they listened to either could not sustain the drama or imposed too much of their own narratives. Chamber music gave them more room. They listened to Schubert's Quintet in C Major, and it spoke to them so strongly that they decided to abandon the search for a symphony. Instead, they found a series of quartets, quintets and other intimate works, tailoring them to the story they wanted to tell.

Once they established the play's arc and had gathered all sorts of music, they got on their feet and did what they called "chicken and the egg," Keepers said, discovering actions and listening through their music collection until they found a piece that fit.

The Moving Company's work draws from root forms of theater that, like the music they use, have been around for quite a while, including mask, commedia dell'arte and Greek tragedy. Keepers said they are drawn to classical music for a similar reason: Despite its age, or maybe because of it, it allows them to be contemporary. Unlike newer music or even jazz, it does not anchor to a specific place and time.

"It's somehow a little more open; you can use it to support your point of view on something," Keepers said. "It can fit something new even though it's old, which we do a lot."

Speechless is a multifaceted piece of music in and of itself: Although the premise suggests sorrow, it has so many more layers to it. The performers bring those through in ebbs and flows of joy, humor, playfulness and love.

To steal a quote from another theater artist I talked to last month: "It's a style that we might not associate with joyfulness or exuberance, because to our modern ear I think it sounds really somber or it's in the dark part of the movie. … But going into [the] music and looking at it, there's so much joy to be found."

The Moving Company's Speechless runs through June 10 at the Lab Theater.

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