Full disclosure: I know some members of this show’s cast
Fuller disclosure: I would never hesitate to give my friends a bad review
How do you feel about listening to a cappella singing in oak-paneled churches lit only by candlelight? How about having that singing be part of a story of historical fiction about Elizabethan England? Sorry, perhaps that question was abrupt. If someone had asked me a week ago I would have said ‘I haven’t really thought about it’ and I hadn’t prior to The Orchard Theater Collective’s production of Thomas Tallis. I love a cappella singing and I love candlelight as much as the next person but I don’t usually care about historical dramas, especially British ones (I’ve never watched a single episode of Downton Abbey). But this specific play, coupled with this specific venue, with a wildly focused production definitely earns an exception to my apathy of historic drama.
So if I care so little about seeing the queen (and all of her majesty) on stage, then why oh why did I check out this show? Because of the video trailer, that’s why. SIDEBAR, let’s talk about video trailers: In my opinion, they’re incredibly valuable and every theater company should be making them. I saw a print advertisement for this show and was intrigued by the name Thomas Tallis. I knew of him from my days as a choir nerd. He was one of the most famous composers of the Renaissance era and his piece If Ye Love Me is a staple of choirs both amateur and professional. I was intrigued that there’s a play about him. I also knew people in the production. And still… I wasn’t planning to go to this show. Sorry but there’s so much art in town I can’t possible get to it all. But there was a video trailer… and I’ve got time for a video trailer. 59 seconds later I was hooked, even inviting friends to go with me. Bravo to all the theater companies who take the time to cross over into a bit of videography. For my impressionable eyes, it’s well worth it.
The video teases that the show is about the trials and tribulations of one sincere artist. A single man, pure of heart, seeking beauty in a world full of malice and greed. In truth, the show is partly about that but more about the era in which this single man lived. Plot wise, this play is Forrest Gump (but with less running and shrimp) in that our protagonist is a vessel, a lens through which we see the world around him change. We see King Henry VIII do terrible things, we see a Catholic priest forced into hiding, we see Queen Elizabeth I rise to power, we see commoners do common things. Honestly, I was hoping for more focus on an eccentric composer and less on the names from the history books. Our protagonist Thomas is quite a passive hero, always choosing to keep his head and living to compose another day. While the plot was not exactly what I was hoping for, I found myself feeling empathy for every character in an unexpected way. I found myself realizing how religion is a constant in the human condition and how it inevitably becomes entangled with politics. How music is always a passenger in religious expression and how it becomes the status symbol of each leader.
All that was well and good, and presented with gentle mastery. But for me it wasn’t the plot or the acting was the highlight of the evening. It was the music. A cappella (voices with no instruments) singing is given great importance in this production. Live singers present the real compositions of the real Thomas Tallis in a candle-lit church similar to the ones in which the pieces were composed. For me, that’s magic. I love theater and scripts and knowing that a playwright envisioned the world through Tallis’s eyes and came up with this story but that has so many in-between steps from Tallis’s mind to mine. The singing is a direct link. Thomas decided on those exact notes in those exact rhythms on that exact text and it has remained in tact for 500 years. I’m not exaggerating when I say that feels like magic. Thomas Tallis is traveling through time… or at least his ideas are. The compositions are as urgent and beautiful today as they were in 1550. I love this not because he’s famous and we should kneel down at his altar but because that direct connection to anyone, brought to life by human voices is amazing. I feel the same way about living composers: if you have a concert of a cappella music coming up let me know and I’ll be there. Great music, coupled with the story of how that great music came to be is well worth your time. Thomas Tallis is an engrossing experience. This young theater company is pairing a very intentional setting with a captivating piece. Get there while you can, tick tock.