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Cullen Vance adds melancholy to OCT’s Melancholy Play

Sarah Ruhl’s Melancholy Play, opening Friday night, Feb. 24, at Oregon Contemporary Theatre, posits an idea that seems utterly un-American: What if it’s OK not to be happy? What if we don’t need to smile all the time, despite our ingrained right to the pursuit of happiness?

That radical notion formed an emotional starting point for Eugene musician and performer Cullen Vance, who was brought into the OCT production of Melancholy by director Tara Wibrew to compose a half hour of cello music to be performed on stage by Julian, one of the characters in the play. The music is almost Julian’s only voice in the show.

Melancholy Play explores something we may be losing in a society that’s obsessed with being happy,” Vance says. “What have we lost in a society that’s trying so hard to fight depression?”

Ruhl’s script specifies that a cello be played, but doesn’t say what the music should be.

Melancholy is very simple,” Vance says. “The people on stage can never say one thing and be thinking another. That’s one of the things I love about Sarah Ruhl. There’s never any subtext.”

Vance, 25, came to Eugene three years ago from Turlock, California, where he grew up the son of a Marine drill sergeant. Since they arrived here, he and his wife, Mia, have both begun to make their marks in the local arts world. He’s performed for children at the Oregon Bach Festival and at Saturday Market and has taught theater at Springfield’s Academy of Arts and Academics; she runs a fusion belly dance troupe.

With a background in both theater and music, Vance has long been comfortable combining the two forms. “Every time I direct a show I write a little music for it,” he says. “And when I write music for a play, it’s completely intertwined, not just with the characters but with the heartbeat and tempo of the show.”

Vance has thought a lot about the role of music in the play. “What I’ve tried to do is have the music be the fourth wall, the thing that connects what’s on stage to the audience.” 

He has built much of the music for Melancholy Play around a major seventh chord, that slightly bright but unresolved sound that makes the blues sound like the blues. “That seventh wants to resolve,” he says. “But at the same time you don’t want it to resolve.”

Vance is self-taught as a musician. All his composition is done through improvisation.

Ruhl won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellowship in 2006. Her plays include The Clean House, which ran at OCT in 2009, and Dead Man’s Cell Phone, which ran at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival the same year.

The OCT production of Melancholy Play runs features an ensemble cast with Ben Brinkley, Leslie Jones, Chelsey Megli, Tracy Nygard, Kelly Oristano and Joseph Workman. The show runs Friday, Feb. 24, through March 12 at Oregon Contemporary Theatre; tickets are $15 to $35 at octheatre.org.