Legend has it that a Princess Alexandra of Bavaria once ingested – or believed she ingested – a grand piano made of glass.
Intrigued by the notion, playwright Alix Sobler has turned it into a fairy tale for adults, The Glass Piano, now receiving its U.S. premiere at Florida Atlantic University’s Theatre Lab. There is much to like about the play and its production, even if, like the piano, the story is hard to swallow.
With that initial image of a comely royal ingenue who must move about the castle with caution, lest the glass piano within her breaks into shards, Sobler has spun a tale laden with daffy characters and thoughtful metaphors.
Certainly Alexandra’s dad, King Ludwig, is daft, preoccupied as he is by spinning doggerel couplets about himself as well as declaring such intractable edicts as a realm-wide outlawing of divorce. That decree will ultimately work against him, for his wife, Queen Vera, fled the castle years ago, leaving Ludwig lonely and unable to act on his feelings for Galstina, the much put-upon servant and factotum. And then there’s Lucien, a language-studying philologist and distant relative of Napoleon Bonaparte, who arrives to study the local feral children but changes his focus when he becomes smitten with Alexandra.
While this seems like a recipe for mere silliness – and there is plenty here that is silly, to be sure – Sobler sees in the whimsical tale such weighty themes as the importance of language, limits of personal freedom, the power of love and the inertia of anxiety. True, she never takes these ideas very far or very deep, but they hang in the air for the audience to chew on.
By the end of the first act, the two couples have professed their love and seem headed for a happily ever after. But as in Into the Woods, what follows is darker and more dramatic. A tidy, satisfying ending would only be letting us off the hook, which Sobler has no intention of doing.
Still, there is much to enjoy in the performances of the quartet of actors that director Matt Stabile has assembled. Deep-dimpled Diana Garle tiptoes about the castle with a cautious sidestep, worried that her next move will shatter her internal piano. She sits down delicately, to the sound of glass tinkles within her. Although she is confined to the castle, her spirit is unbroken. And when she is relieved of her deadly musical curse – at least temporarily – her visage is radiant.
Desmond Gallant, who returned to the stage in Theatre Lab’s Be Here Now two years ago after an absence of two decades, gives another solid performance as Ludwig, the unfit monarch. As metaphors go, maybe Sobler never intended him to be a stand-in for our current president, but he does come to mind.
Irene Adjan steals each scene she is in as uber-efficient Galstina, which the slightest of eye rolls and sighs of distain. And Jovon Jacobs fills out the foursome as very verbal Lucien, stopped in his tracks by unexpected love.
Despite the limitations of Theatre Lab’s playing space, scenic designer Michael McClain’s eye-popping unit set that encompasses the castle interior, Ludwig’s library and a couple of human-sized niches is surely the production’s crowning achievement. With perspective trickery and artful detailing, it suggests a pop-up book. Jayson Tomasheski lights it skillfully and resident costumer Dawn Shamburger devises a fairy tale wardrobe, most notably Alexandra’s shimmering, wide-hipped princess gown.
Many a theater would be stumped by how to realize what Sobler has put on the page, but Stabile and his resident crew and well-cast company have been energized by the challenge. The Glass Piano is every bit as odd as it sounds, and you wouldn’t want it any other way.
THE GLASS PIANO, FAU Theatre Lab, Parliament Hall, FAU Campus, 777 Glades Road, Boca Raton. Through Sunday, March 1. $32-$40. 561-297-6124.