Song of a Convalescent

Michael Rau and Matthew Yates Crowley (Photo: American Repertory Theater)

The window is a small one, so you will need to move quickly. If you are in the Boston area and are interested in idea-driven theater that captures the mind and the imagination both, here’s one for you: Song of a Convalescent Ayn Rand Giving Thanks to the Godhead (In the Lydian Mode), written by Michael Yates Crowley and directed by Michael Rau. This is an unforgettable performance, but it is only running through October 23 at the Oberon Theater (American Repertory Theater’s second stage.)

The character “elements” of this adventure in theater—calling it a play would feel inaccurate—range from Beethoven (and his late quartet that inspired the name), migraines, the nature of pain, the demands of art, Ayn Rand, her acolyte Alan Greenspan and the Cato Institute to a drag queen at a strip club in Peoria. The evening begins with Crowley’s migraine “diaries”—he has suffered from painful headaches for most of his life—but quickly moves into an exquisitely languaged and imagined journey through the landscape that is our lives. Crowley interweaves disparate ideas but does not force them into service of one theme. There are many, and they are vibrant and provocative. The mastery of this work at every level is subtle but absolute.

A review in The Last Magazine references Crowley’s chance encounter years ago with the midnight garbage barge at Disneyland. “It was Disney’s nightly disposal run, weaving a way amongst its larger, more convivial kin on its way towards the dump. There it was, floating right in the middle of all the fun, and everyone was pretending it wasn’t there.”

That metaphor of the garbage barge is apropos for so much of the underbelly that is hidden below the radar screen—like pain, or like the role Ayn Rand’s pernicious legacy has had in our economic and political malaises.

From the review:

In their most recent piece, Song of a Convalescent Ayn Rand Giving Thanks to the Godhead (In the Lydian Mode), that pitchy bark stealing stealthily through our lives is pain. Sometimes hidden, sometimes violently pronounced, it provides the red thread that holds together a series of twenty-four scenelets presenting variations on their chosen theme…Taking as its starting point the vivid descriptions of agony found in Crowley’s high-school migraine diaries, the show is an enthralling and often bizarre excursion that sees commerce with Beethoven (speaking exclusively in German), a small-town drag performer singing lyrics from Emily Dickinson, an Objectivist scholar struggling with a crisis of faith, and even the Great Mind herself (Ayn Rand, for the happy uninitiated).

It’s a combination that in other hands could come off as an artificial muddle, but here there is a direct simplicity, an ease in telling, and a honesty in the presentation that allows these disparate elements to seem not only natural, but essential bedfellows. Rational egotism not your bag? It’s not Crowley’s and Rau’s either, but like it or not it’s a doctrine that continues to inform our society’s most fundamental beliefs. And the particular genius of these theatermakers is their ability to be incisive without forfeiting understanding—a sort of empathy with jagged edges that comprehends the humanity of its villains at the same time as it lays waste to their ideals. There is a sort of wisdom in their work that hums beneath every tossed-off joke and under the strains of the melodica that a long-dead Ayn Rand takes up towards the end (and plays with as much passion and verve, one imagines, as the melodica has ever been played). This, and a startling sense of fun, are what make Song of a Convalescent Ayn Rand such a rare theatrical beast—rarely heard of, less often seen, but fascinating to watch when it is.

At the Oberon Theater, 2 Arrow Street, Cambridge, through October 23.

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