Souvenir at the Paper Lantern Theatre concerns an operatic diva whose talents are off key. (photo by James Freetly)
Many of us have been victims to the karaoke machine sitting in the corner of a bar. Someone drinks down a little liquid courage, and our ears shutter upon hearing them exclaim their bright idea: “Hey, we should sing karaoke!” But the truth is…despite their painful, tune-wrecking cries, their failures are what make the night so hilariously entertaining. Paper Lantern Theatre Company explores our guilty pleasure of laughing at others in its production of Stephen Temperley’s Souvenir, a fictional and comedic “biography” that tells the well-disputed story of the real-life Florence Foster Jenkins (Emily Mark), a wealthy eccentric who decades ago earned great fame with her off-key performances. Despite being regarded as the world’s worst opera singer, Jenkins filled the seats at annual recitals and eventually a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall. “We still have examples of this today,” said actor Jason Kraack (Cosme McMoon) in comparing Souvenir to American Idol’s William Hung, “but nobody has quite reached the pinnacle of success that Florence Foster Jenkins did.
“We all have that want to watch a train wreck inside of us, and [Jenkins] kind of pokes at that in all of us.” Souvenir tells Jenkins’ story through the eyes of the contrastingly talented Cosme McMoon (Jason Kraack) who she pays to accompany her on the piano. McMoon interacts with the audience and tells Jenkins’ story through a series of flashbacks that reach from when they met in 1932 to the present time of 1964. “It’s really kind of a love story of the admiration [Cosme] developed for her over the course of the 12 years that they’re together,” Kraack said. “Later on, that admiration develops into a friendship and he starts to wonder if maybe she’s not some sort of genius.”
“Plays that I’m attracted to always have an interesting character and this play definitely has an interesting character — and what’s more interesting is that she was a real woman,” said Director Bryan Conger.
“I think it’s about an artist finding her own voice and kind of doing her own thing.” “She’s really sort of larger than life,” said Emily Mark (Florence Jenkins). “Under all her bravado and larger-than-lifeness she’s really very insecure with herself and she constantly needs to have somebody there who can give her a bit of a moral boost — and that’s sort of where Cosme comes in.”
Posed throughout the play is the question of whether or not Jenkins knows that she’s a bad singer and if she’s aware that people are making fun of her. Or does she know and she just doesn’t care?
“We don’t really answer many questions in the play, we just put them out there and the audience gets to decide if she’s crazy or if she knows exactly what she’s doing,” Kraack said.
“There aren’t a lot of people who have a real true passion for their work, and she had this unabashed passion for what she did,” Mark said. “She’s really a very inspiring person.” Although Mark is not a classics-trained singer or opera singer, her background and education is in music theatre, so faking an off-pitch voice is actually challenging. “It’s incredibly difficult because when you’re trained as a musician you’re trained to have that musically-trained ear,” Mark said. “If there’s anything that’s off-kilter you fix it, so to do that on purpose you’re going against everything you’ve been taught. It takes a lot of work to do it safely so I don’t hurt my voice.”
The set of Souvenir is a dream-like café orchestrated around an alley stage, which means the stage runs down the middle with the audience sitting on both sides, across from one another. Conger said he likes alley stages because it allows the audience to also see one another’s expres- sions and play off other’s experiences. “I always want to make people feel like they’re apart of the play,” Conger said. “We’ve covered the tables with tablecloths and we’re put- ting candles and little things all over the tables just to make everyone feel like they’re in New York in this kind of great fantasy piano bar.” Further setting the atmosphere is the white baby grand piano on which Kraack will play classical pieces.
“I love the intimacy of this play and the intimacy of these two people, so I think it works beautifully in the [UpStage] cabaret,” Conger said.
Paper Lantern Theatre’s Souvenir runs Thursday through July 24 in Triad Stage’s UpStage Cabaret, 232 S. Elm St., Greensboro. Tickets are $18 general admission, $15 for seniors, students and Triad Stage season pass holders. For tickets call 272-0160 or visit paperlantertheatre.com.