‘Searching for Mr. Moon” opens with a surge of tangled violins and cellos. Colorful squiggles and arrows careen across the stage, projected over fragmented shapes.
In tune with this sensory tumult, Rich Topol (playing himself) takes the stage, talking anxiously about the “Topol hex” – the tragically young death of his family’s fathers. Rich’s existential unease is acute: he’s awaiting the birth of his own first child.
On stage now (and online soon) at Portland Stage Company, “Searching for Mr. Moon” is stage and television actor Topol’s moving autobiographical one-man show, co-written with friend and playwright Willy Holtzman. Portland Stage Company presented a staged workshop reading of the play last season, and now, under the direction of Julia Gibson, PSC presents the world premiere production of “Mr. Moon,” a stirring multimedia story about fatherhood, loss, and art.
Over the play’s extended monologue, Rich recounts the life and death of his father, a New York ad-man who died when Rich was 12, and of his father-in-law, the famous experimental composer Lukas Foss. As his own child enters the world, Rich recalls himself looking everywhere for father figures, artistic mentors, and any reassurance about fathering his own child.
As the script weaves deftly through time, Topol makes Rich a winning narrator, avid, humble, and energetic. He has a childlike eagerness to share and explore his vivid recollections. He even rallies an endearing little running start as he launches across the stage into new scenes to tell us about shooting hoops with his dad; about being intimidated at a star-studded Foss party; about being cast with Al Pacino in “King Lear” and unconsciously “auditioning him” as a father.
Besides Rich himself, many characters pass through “Mr. Moon,” and Topol plays them all nimbly and with great compassion: his wife Eliza, his refined painter mother-in-law Cornelia, his own father and mother, a random animal rescue attendant, Pacino playing King Lear, and, of course, Foss: the brilliant German-American composer who claims winkingly that he writes “everything but songs,” and whom Topol portrays with a loving, gently impish charisma.
Topol’s character quick-changes come faster on the heels of each other as the narrative tension rises. Particularly, he performs a virtuoso back-and-forth now as Foss, describing a catastrophic fire, and as his own mother, recounting his father’s death. This polyphonic approach to the story seems to echo Foss’ complex musical tangling of voices, and it aptly conveys the intertwining of these threads in how Rich makes his own meaning of what’s happened.
Heightening Topol’s fine storytelling are frequently shifting projections (by Michael Commendatore) and lights (by Marie Yokoyama) over the set, which is like a three-dimensional abstract expressionist frieze of fragmented steel shapes – diamonds, blades, moons, and half-moons (by Anita Stewart).
As projection screens, these geometric shapes sometimes brim with animated strangeness, as Foss’ music plays; another time they’re lit with cool blues, as Rich swims in a lake in the Catskills. The show’s inspired production design also makes affecting use of Topol’s own childhood home movies, a mesmerizing audio recording of the real Foss giving a lecture, and Cornelia’s final portrait of her husband as he declined from Parkinson’s.
Rich relates some seriously compelling stories as he goes. It’s like some strange classical music fairy tale to hear how Cornelia moved herself and her children to Toronto for her five-year affair with Glenn Gould, then moved them and herself back to Foss when he died. And it’s mind-exploding to think that when Foss directed the Buffalo Philharmonic in 1970 he once brought in the Grateful Dead to improvise with the orchestra. (I went looking for a recording online, but it turns out to be missing; Foss’ son has offered a $2,000 reward to find it.)
Indeed, Foss’ own story and music are fascinating in and of themselves. After escaping the Nazis and coming to America at 15, already a piano prodigy, Foss then escaped his father, who’d planned to seal him into a life performing other people’s compositions.
Foss had grander ambitions, and at music school made fast friends with a young man named Lenny Bernstein. Foss went on to compose his signature playful and often chaotic-seeming “chance music,” also known as aleatoric compositions, which left space in certain sections for the musicians to improvise.
Wonderfully, “Mr. Moon” lets us experience some of this bracing music and its themes, sometimes as accompaniment and sometimes as the focus of scenes (David Van Tieghem’s sound design is superb).
In one magical sequence, Topol plays Foss conducting a concert for young people, which Rich remembers being dragged to as a teenager. Foss turns to the audience like a delighted co-conspirator, invites certain sections of the house to talk upon his signal, and then conducts the PSC house in a brief snatch of spoken chance music. Then Foss turns back to the orchestra to conduct them through the sounds of Morse-coded xylophone, ratcheting dissonance, and breaking glass.
Foss’ music becomes a powerful voice alongside Rich’s in the show’s meditations on death, fate, and the brevity of life. In one uncommonly moving scene, Topol plays Foss pulled over in a car and listening, as if spiritually entranced, to Glenn Gould playing the “Goldberg Variations.” Another scene has Topol, again as Foss, conducting the first composition of his “Time Cycle” (a setting of a poem by W.H. Auden): “We have no time,” we hear a soprano slowly intone.
In the long term, of course, that soprano is right. But as Topol, Holtzman, and PSC’s rousing “Mr. Moon” suggest, art can help us reckon with even our most tangled losses, bringing brave beauty to the time that’s left.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.
Death, 3 ways
• Something all-too-relatably bonkers is coming to the Studio Theatre at Portland Stage: It’s the return of the reading series “Too Strange to Live, Too Weird to Die,” curated by the company’s literary manager, Todd Brian Backus. Just in time for Thanksgiving, the boundary-stretching theater series presents Kate Benson’s “A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of Great Lakes,” in which an “all-American family” prepares for “the original bloodsport, Thanksgiving Dinner.” On stage live Saturday, Nov. 20, at 7 p.m.; $15 at the door (masks and proof of vaccination or of a negative COVID-19 test are required), $10 online. FMI: www.portlandstage.org.
• Ogres and warriors come out of the woodwork and the 1990s at the University of Southern Maine this week with “She Kills Monsters.” In this play by Qui Nguyen, a girl engages in an epic Dungeons & Dragons campaign to find out who her dead sister was when she was alive. Directed by USM Theatre alum Megan Tripaldi, the show runs Nov. 12-21 (masks and proof of vaccination or of a negative COVID-19 test are required). FMI: https://bit.ly/3naLqrq.
• Finally, mark your December calendars in advance for a special Mad Horse Theater Company presentation of a play by beloved Portland actor and playwright David Butler. His “Dying to Know,” which he’s written and revised over the last decade, tells the story of a friendship between a hospice volunteer and a young woman battling cancer. Butler is also a pastor who has worked as a hospital and prison chaplain, and he brings to the script this experience as a faith leader. Directed by Nick Schroeder, the show runs Dec. 2-12, under Mad Horse’s new “Pay What You Decide” policy (masks and proof of vaccination or of a negative COVID-19 test are required). FMI: www.madhorse.com.
— Megan Grumbling