Theatre Lab’s fifth season continues with The US premiere of The Glass Piano by Alix Sobler, which premiered last year at London’s Coronet Theatre. It was loosely inspired by the utterly fascinating case of the real Princess Alexandra of Bavaria, who suffered from a delusion that she had swallowed a glass grand piano as a child and must now move ever so delicately to avoid shattering it.
Even stranger, Alexandra’s “glass delusion” was actually not unique but fairly common among nobles and the upper classes, though the piano aspect does seem to be her invention. Men often had the delusion that they had glass buttocks, forcing them to go around with a pillow strapped to their behinds, or that they were glass urinals.
In The Glass Piano, however, Alexandra’s piano is visually represented underneath her shimmering skirt, and the result is that it’s not entirely clear whether we are supposed to read the play’s Alexandra (Diana Garle) as mentally disturbed or her plight as an instance of theatrical magical realism.
While a scene in which a distraught Alexandra appears to vomit up glass and the play’s “shattering” conclusion suggests the latter, the fact that the piano shrinks when Alexandra is happier and disappears when she begins to undress suggest the former.
Her father King Ludwig (Desmond Gallant) and head maid Galastina (Irene Adjan) seem to have accepted the piano as, if not real, at least an immutable part of their lives, remaining unfazed as she contorts herself sideways through doorways and sit only on specialized ottomans.
If Alexandra’s problems are to be understood as mental ones, it sure seems like they run in the family. Since Ludwig has legally forbidden divorce, her mother Vera opted to escape her husband by leaving the castle to roam its ground like a madwoman—and the self-absorbed and inflexible Ludwig clearly has a few screws loose himself.
Alexandra’s piano is, as Sobler points out in the play’s author’s note obviously a wonderful metaphor. Yet she goes on to wonder “a metaphor for what?”—and the play’s answer isn’t quite clear. Grief, over Vera’s departure? Anxiety? Being a woman, being a noble woman? Hemophilia? Or perhaps you’re meant to see naught but your own reflection in Alexandra’s somewhat transparent condition.
I’m tempted to compare The Glass Piano to The Glass Menagerie not (solely) because I am tempted to compare everything to The Glass Menagerie or because of the similarities in title and core metaphors. There’s also the fact that it involves three characters who are semi-contently living at some remove from “reality” until the arrival of a stranger shakes things up. In this case, mysterious language scholar Lucien Bonaparte (Jovon Jacobs), also based on an actual historical figure.
For one, Lucien helps Ludwig improve his poetry, which results in Ludwig and Galastina finally admitting their attraction to one another and consummating their relationship. Lucien also falls in love with Alexandra, which is when she begins to “shrink.”
However, the King’s refusal to reconsider his convictions makes neither union feasible, and from there the previously whimsical tale turns surprisingly dark. The play’s somewhat scattered focus, though, made me unsure whether the gravity of this ending was fully earned; not being able to pinpoint for sure what The Glass Piano was about in a broader sense stopped its thematic loose ends from fully cohering into a satisfying mosaic.
There’s not a moment of The Glass Piano that wasn’t enjoyable nonetheless. The show was visually stunning, performed on an extravagant set in ornate costumes and enhanced by ethereal sound cues. Then there was the cast, who wholeheartedly embraced their absurd circumstances, and made even the more morally ambiguous characters seem sympathetic. I’ve also neglected to mention that both actors and dialogue were often hilarious, though top honors may have to go to Irene Adjan for Galastina’s maniacal final scene. Catch it yourself until this March 1st!
PS: The real Alexandra of Bavaria never married, but she did, oddly enough, go on to become an accomplished writer. Now that’s an ending I would’ve liked to see!