In one exceptional evocative musical hour, super-talented Bay Area actor and singer Beth Wilmurt and her excellent three-piece band pay a musical tribute to Olga, the eldest sister in Anton Chekhov’s celebrated, though pessimistic play, The Three Sisters. While the homage is oblique, the choice of music in the set list, as well as the ambience of the stage set, speaks to the essence of Olga, although no knowledge of Olga is required to enjoy Olga, A Farewell Concert.
Wilmurt told me that she identifies with the character Olga, since they are both people who are quiet, spend their time and energy taking care of others, and are teachers. I trust that the similarities end there, since I wouldn’t wish Olga’s unfulfilled and lonely life on anyone. Olga’s air of wistfulness pervades the musical hour, yet it has its moments of joy.
Located in the Aurora’s Harry’s Upstage, the small venue is organized with festival seating, supplemented by a few cabaret tables on the stage level. Honeyed-voiced Wilmurt (The Eccentricities of a Nightingale and Jack Goes Boating at Aurora; Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Hamlet at Shotgun Players) is seated at the piano, playing quietly until the actual performance begins.
She then plays the piano and sings a few songs, including Wasting My Time (Harry Nilsson) and When I’m Gone (Phil Ochs), before the band enters in soldiers’ uniforms (in an allusion to The Three Sisters, since nearby soldiers visited the sisters’ house). Band members Sam Barnum, guitar and lead accompaniment, Gabe Maxson, harmonica, and Olive Mitra, bass and percussion are terrific, as is Beth Wilmurt on the ukulele. When Wilmurt takes the microphone, accompanied by the band using sophisticated musical arrangements, she sings beautifully, mostly slow, but some upbeat contemporary American songs by writers from Jimmy Cliff to Johnny Cash. Her voice is soft and sultry, yet she can belt it out with the best of them.
Wilmurt developed this production with support from Aurora Theatre Company’s new works program Originate + Generate. She has been exploring Olga since 2007 when she played Olga in a dance-theatre piece, Yes Yes to Moscow. It is still a bit of a work in progress. The production values, including lighting, sound and choreography would benefit from some tweaking. Having the large video of snow falling in a forest vary and change during the performance would make it more visually appealing.
But these are small and easily fixable suggestions. What makes Olga such an enthralling experience is the skill and talent of Wilmurt and the band, as well as the creativity in interpreting a famous theatrical character’s soul through contemporary American songs.
Olga runs at Aurora Theatre’s Harry’s Upstage through Dec. 10. Seats are on a first-come, first-served basis when you arrive at the theatre. Doors open one half hour before the performance. Should you wish to have an assigned seat to Olga, A Farewell Concert, please choose a VIP Reserved Seat when you purchase your tickets. For information, extended performance dates and tickets, visit Aurora Theatre’s website.