In “Olga: A Farewell Concert,” Beth Wilmurt communicates the emotional relevance of a 19th-century Russian play to the current day, reminding us of the essential human truths foundational to even the most musty-seeming works of literature.
The theatrical music performance premiered Friday, Dec. 1 at the Aurora Theatre and exhibited the latest artistic endeavor of Wilmurt, a seasoned Bay Area actress, singer and dancer. “Olga” marks Wilmurt’s second performance piece exploring the character of Olga Prozorova from Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” having first appeared onstage as Olga in the 2008 movement drama “Yes, Yes to Moscow.”
While “Yes, Yes” considered the fate of Olga and her two sisters, Masha and Irina, “Olga: A Farewell Concert” focuses solely on Olga, the eldest of the three. Throughout the piece, Wilmurt delves into Olga’s mind, communicating sorrows and joys by way of her personal renditions of a series of hand-picked songs.
From the outset of the show, Wilmurt transformed the stage into her home, or — more accurately — the home of Olga. Thus, the audience filed into the diminutive theatre to find the stage resembling a living room. Its decoration was minimal yet effective, conveying a sense of coziness and comfort with the central rug, couch and chairs cast in a toasty, reddish lighting. On the screen above the stage, snow fell in a wintry landscape scene, emphasizing the warmth of the presented interior.
Wilmurt herself wasted no time in making an entrance, bypassing the process altogether. As the audience entered, the titular character already sat at her piano, Olga’s frustration palpable as she stumbled through a series of short melodies.
Once the crowd settled, Wilmurt began to speak, but through the speakers instead of directly: “It’s just me,” lamented Wilmurt, or perhaps Olga. “I’m a teacher. I have a headache, so hopefully that won’t be distracting,” her voice bluntly added, capitalizing on the fact that both actress and character work in education, and granting the performance an air of casualness. Olga was tired and her piano performance mistake-ridden, unforgivingly admitting the character’s imperfect humanity. The deft transparency with which Wilmurt navigated this character lent “Olga” one of its more memorable qualities: The performance allowed the audience to view it as a relatable, living reflection of a facet of the human experience, as opposed to a detached tale stuck within its own microcosm.
The bulk of the show’s 60 minutes consisted of a string of songs performed primarily by Wilmurt as Olga. Selected by Wilmurt (“by intuition,” as the artist told The Daily Californian after the show), these abided by no detectable pattern, ranging from well-known material from Johnny Cash and Stevie Wonder to pieces obscure enough to elude Spotify. Though seemingly disjointed from a cursory glance at the song list, when performed in Wilmurt’s evidently well-trained, pristine vocals, the selection made sense. The music clearly reflected Olga’s transition from initial isolation to rising positivity despite her loneliness to careful yet mournful optimism.
Despite the commendable coherence of the production’s soundtrack, Wilmurt started off on a wobbly note. Wilmurt began the performance not actually onstage, but toward the side on her piano, from which she crooned her first two numbers. Though the sorrowful message of these mournful tunes carried its intended weight, Wilmurt’s awkward positioning left the audience unsure of whether to focus on the scenery or the performer.
Regardless, Wilmurt quickly worked to engage her viewers fully as she made her way to the main stage. As Olga’s spirits rose, so did the songs’ tempos. The central character’s emotions were further mirrored by the entrance of a group of friendly soldiers (the Prozorova sisters’ father served as an army officer), the effect of whose company evidenced itself in the harmonious music they created alongside Olga.
All considered, the show was clearly a work in progress, as demonstrated by some minor bumps in flow and a few falters in voice. Wilmurt achieved overwhelming success, however, in maintaining an illusion of familiarity with viewers throughout the production, granting the performance the air of a casual gathering of friends creating music together. Occasionally, Wilmurt encouraged the audience to sing along, even offering at one point to “top off” everybody’s glass of wine.
In the end, the soldiers left Olga alone in the solitude of her house, the wind loud and roaring outside. With tears in her eyes, Wilmurt softly sang out a final message of bravery and hope, despite her evident fear and isolation: “Whispering hope,” she murmured, “how welcome my voice, making my heart in its sorrow rejoice.”
“Olga: A Farewell Concert” runs through Dec. 10.