Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
Tuesday, April 16, 2024
The Observer

Panethiere NSR Petrarch Web Banner Color

‘Petrarch’: COVID and drama

NSR’s “Petrarch” displayed the company's strengths in a short, 30-minute original musical.

“Petrarch,” a one-act musical by Notre Dame student Ayden Kowalski, debuted last Friday and Saturday in the basement of the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center — I didn’t even know that DPAC had a basement. The venue was 25% liminal space, 25% tornado drill, 25% speakeasy and 25% bomb shelter. The “theater,” a small rearranged rehearsal space, was packed and abuzz.

Editor’s Note: Kowalski is a copy editor for Scene.

The band — a little pop ensemble of a drummer, a bassist, a pianist and a cellist — occupied the back half of the stage. The pianist did an expert job leading the group, serving as their rhythmic and harmonic backbone. The cellist had good tone and effortless intonation; poor string technique ruins a lot of amateur pit orchestras, but it didn't ruin this one.

The show adopted a pop-rap idiom reminiscent of Lin-Manuel Miranda for the male lead's numbers, while the female lead's songs featured a more lyrical style. The music wasn’t super showy, but it was well written; the words were poetic (unsurprising, given the title).

The music was well performed, too. The male lead, Kowalski, was passionate — also unsurprising, because he wrote the thing. The female lead had a remarkable voice, and she knew how to use it to work the room.

Customarily, show tunes end with a “button”: a flourish in the music that tells the audience that the performers are done and that it’s time to clap. “Petrarch” needed stronger buttons — without them, the applause was a little trepidatious. Still, “Petrarch” was a show worth clapping for.

Initially met with skepticism by me, it was promoted as a work exploring “love in the time of COVID.” One reason that disasters are compelling fodder for art is that they drive people together. In “The Decameron,” the plague forces 10 Florentines out of the city and into one countryside villa. In “Guernica,” women and animals and children and soldiers alike are all united in suffering. There’s a lot of drama in plagues and wars, but COVID? COVID was different. It didn’t unite us — it atomized us. In this way, it was an excruciatingly undramatic pandemic. In fact, it was so excruciating precisely because it was so undramatic. It was a lot of sitting around, and that’s tough to stage.

This is the stumbling block which tripped up the Department of Film, Television and Theatre’s production of “As You Are” — another COVID-inspired adaptation of a canonical work (in their case, Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”). I was afraid the Not-So-Royal Shakespeare Company (NSR) would fall prey to the same traps, would make the same mistakes.

But luckily, they didn’t. By keeping “Petrarch” small-scale, they kept it highly focused: one neat love triangle plot line, three clear-cut characters and a half-hour format. They managed to present a COVID narrative which — unlike the COVID pandemic itself — didn’t leave you feeling lonely and schizophrenic, but content instead. It wasn’t too sappy, though. It had a handful of jokes and a few cutting lines.

“Petrarch” was worth its audience’s time. It was invigorating to see a packed house for an original musical, and it showcased NSR’s strengths — a predilection for the classics, a confidence in modernity, finesse in miniature, spunk.