by Sarah Haley
In Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night, the Duke Orsino once said, “If music be the food of love, play on.” Persephone Production’s Counting Aloud endeavors to understand that relationship between music and love. Written and performed by Gabrielle Soskin and directed by Christopher Moore, Counting Aloud is an autobiographical love story between a woman and the piano. Soskin’s story and subsequent performance intersect through the different facets of life as it weaves a paradoxically universal and unique story about the desire to belong and to feel accepted.
Soskin’s life always revolved around the piano in one way or another. As a child in an upper-class British household, the drawing room was dominated by a beautiful grand piano. However, she was never allowed to touch it, as it was reserved for the truly gifted musicians. Her life continued: a love of Shakespeare and storytelling gets her to theatre school, but apprehension causes her to falter and, instead, she pursues a teaching position. Despite introducing her love of Shakespeare and music to her students, something always feels wrong. So, Soskin packs up her bags, and with a quote from the Bard, she moves to Canada.
While she resists the domestic life for fear that she would no longer be the ‘rebel girl,’ it is only after getting married and having children that she finally rediscovers the piano. And though she assures the audience that this is not “a piano recital,” she indulges us with a few tunes as she switches from character to character, recounting her journey.
The stage is appropriately dominated by a miniature grand piano, the focal point of both the story and of the physical stage. For an instrument that is so integral to the production, it can be frustrating how little it is actually played throughout the show. However, it is also indicative of Gabrielle’s story: just as she learns the piano later in her life, she only begins to play for the audience towards the end of the performance. This artistic decision is important to the story because the lack of performance represents Soskin’s internal struggle. What she lacks is a sense of belonging and thus learning the piano can be seen as being equivalent to Soskin finding where she belongs. Despite the thematic relevance the lack of piano playing brings, it is disappointing to hear the majority of the music from a sound system, rather than a live performance on the piano itself. With only a few bars of music bookending the actual production, the piano keys are rarely touched. With a beautiful instrument on stage, its minimal musical integration feels like a missed opportunity.
Despite the honest, endearing, and well-executed production, Counting Aloud is aesthetically overly complicated. As a solo show, Soskin must often quickly shift character to tell a story. Frequently accompanied by props and costume changes, the transitions are not always smooth, becoming overly complicated and having a tendency to divert attention away from the story. While the lighting underscores the themes of the production, it too acts as a distraction, rather than a way to underscore the important elements of the story. When the performer speaks about her parents for the first time, the lights begin to dim. The lights are used to indicate a serious moment, but because the emphasis is placed on the lights rather than the words Soskin speaks it is distracting.
Despite some overcomplicated ideas, there are still some aesthetic choices that are clear and thoughtful. The production travels into the darker recesses of human existence, and for the most part, the aesthetic choices follow it. When the lights turn as dark and red as her father’s Matador cape, Soskin briefly speaks about her father again and she asks why her mother didn’t protect her. The choices are strong, though some do fall flat, and just like Gabrielle throughout her journey in Counting Aloud, the play is still finding its voice.
As she weaves her life story together, mingling it with her love of Shakespeare and her enduring romance with the piano, Gabrielle asks the audience (and herself) an important question: “I’m in a new world. Everything is different. But am I different?” Counting Aloud is a love story about a woman and her piano, but it much more universal. It is about the struggles and the mess of being human. And like the piano chords that ring out at each important moment of the play, the gripping honesty of the script is a reminder of the very human need to belong. The story is honest and vulnerable, but the complex aesthetic choices hinder this performance as it too is trying to find where it belongs.
Written and Performed by Gabrielle Soskin
Directed by Christopher Moore
Presented by Persephone Productions
Playing November 16th, 17th, and 18th at Arts Court Theatre
Sarah Haley is a student at Carleton University. She is currently pursuing a degree in English Literature with concentrations in Medieval Studies and Theatre.