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The Piano Tuner: Reviews
February 2 - March 25, 2007

From the Chicago Tribune

Lifeline doesn't miss a beat when it plays the 'Piano Tuner'

February 12, 2007

Audiences who patronize the unpretentious Lifeline Theatre trust it to tell them stories with complexity, import and heart. It rarely lets them down. As its fascinating current production amply demonstrates, Lifeline's ongoing excellence flows both from its smart selection of fresh literary sources and the unstinting clarity of its theatrical execution.

Daniel Mason's novel "The Piano Tuner" is set in British-occupied Burma in 1866. And the adapter, Lifeline's James E. Grote, is especially adept at period yarns, particularly of the colonialist era. But Mason published "The Piano Tuner" in 2002, when he was 26 years old. The book is subtly post-colonialist, even as it pays clear homage to such famed chroniclers of the British in India as Rudyard Kipling, George Orwell and E.M. Forster. In publishing circles, it was hailed as the work of a wunderkind.

Grote's new stage version explains why.

The story involves a shy and retiring piano tuner, movingly underplayed by Patrick Blashill, hired away from his semi-somnolent English existence to go tune a grand piano halfway across the world. The instrument is the property of an eccentric military man, Dr. Anthony Carroll (Kurt Ehrmann). At the start of the tale, the British authorities regard Carroll as so valuable to the effort in Burma that his musical eccentricities are to be indulged whatever the cost. But by the midpoint of the story, it's no longer so clear whether Carroll still has Her Majesty's interests at heart, not that anyone really knows how (or if) those interests intersect with those of Burma itself.

But the plot centers on the tuner - a shy, formalist craftsman dragged into the messiness of colonial politics and occupation and who undergoes a long-delayed coming of sexual age, right there in the jungle. As Forster observed in "A Passage to India," the English hate muddles. And the poor tuner - ill-equipped to deal with cynicism, betrayal and heat - is one of those Forster-type antiheroes whose self-destructive inability to resist munching on the metaphorical lotus anticipates the end of an empire.

But Mason goes further. The tuner feels like an archetypal smug, apolitical, classical artist, suddenly forced to confront a citizen's real-world obligations. And there is much chatter here about the role of art and culture in military occupation - a theme that inevitably evokes Iraq and whether (or not) the importation of a few reluctant piano tuners on those military transports to Baghdad might do some good. Or merely expose the rot.

All those things float around in your head as the capable director, Jonathan Berry, and his eight actors tell Mason's story in a small space without pretension or a huge budget, but with pace, truth and imagination.

I wouldn't claim the Burmese environment is fully realized. And some parts of the novel feel rushed and a few moments unearned. But there are some rich performances here - especially one by Shole Milos, who turns his British military operative into a figure of real complexity. And you'll be drawn into the tuner's journey, for sure.

The apparent close fit between this novel and Grote's shrewd, practical adaptation makes you wonder why this lush cinematic novel has yet to become a movie. In Chicago, at least, we have the Lifeline.

From the Chicago Sun-Times

An English 'Tuner' blossoms in Burma

February 13, 2007

Highly Recommended

As Noel Coward reminded us, only "mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun." Yet for as long as the sun never set on the British Empire, such Englishmen wandered the far reaches of the globe and suffered the sort of heat strokes that had more to do with culture shock and altered consciousness than hyperthermia or crisped skin.

This phenomenon was, of course, not restricted to the English. Take a French diplomat or an American soldier and put him in Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq -- or, for that matter, take any intrepid traveler and put her in Mexico, North Africa or even Italy -- and a spell might very well be cast, a transformation set in motion.

Edgar Drake, the lead character in Daniel Mason's best-selling 2002 novel The Piano Tuner -- a book now receiving a wonderfully evocative world premiere stage adaptation by Lifeline Theatre -- is a classic case. Back home in England, he's a rather timid if latently romantic middle-class Victorian -- childless after a long marriage to a seemingly passionate woman, and quite obsessive about his work as a piano tuner, even if he consistently underplays his musical abilities.

Drake has never traveled beyond the borders of his own island nation. But then, in 1886, something akin to an official order comes to him by way of the British War Office -- a request that he head to the most remote and embattled jungles of Burma, where he is to tune an Erard grand. He obeys. It is a fateful decision.

The piano, originally transported under the most treacherous conditions, is the property of Dr. Anthony Carroll, a British major with the unique distinction of being able to maintain some sort of alliance with local tribes and thereby prevent the French colonialists from taking control of the region. Carroll has a near- mythic reputation (think of Marlon Brando's Col. Kurtz in the film "Apocalypse Now"), and for the moment at least, he must be humored. Some even believe it is his music that has beguiled the restless locals.

"The Piano Tuner" is expertly scripted by James E. Grote and ingeniously directed by Jonathan Berry, with help from a grand team of designers. We watch as Drake blossoms by way of actor Patrick Blashill's impeccable performance -- one that captures his character's slow metamorphosis as he embarks on an elaborate, eye-opening, exceedingly treacherous, love-spiced odyssey. Drake's wife, Katherine (a savvy turn by Melanie Esplin), is gradually pushed into the half-light by the appearance of an elusive, English-speaking guide and seductress named Khin Myo (Fawzia Mirza works her subtle magic) and by the formidable presence of Carroll (the first-rate Kurt Ehrmann). Deftly shape-shifting as dozens of other exotic characters are Shole Milos, Yosh Hayashi, Eric Martig and Danny Bernardo.

"The Piano Tuner" offers sublime storytelling plus a grand tour. And no passport or visa is required.

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