Charlie Varon and Joan Jeanrenaud Partner in New Marsh Show

by Jean Schiffman

“Second Time Around” is solo performer Charlie Varon’s gender-defying, onstage duet between storyteller and cellist.

“What would happen if you put a 92-year-old and a teenager in the same room?” Charlie Varon asked himself as he contemplated writing the short story “Second Time Around.” That story, by the acclaimed, longtime San Francisco solo performer (“Rush Limbaugh in Night School,” “Rabbi Sam,” “The People’s Violin” and more), is one of a series that he has been writing, over the past five years, about the quirky and distinctly individualistic residents in a San Francisco retirement home. Varon calls the cycle “a love letter to that generation, my parents’ generation, of American Jews.”

It now premieres as a genre-defying, onstage duet—full of humor and wistfulness and sharp-eyed observations about age and youth and today’s world—between storyteller (Varon) and cellist (world-renowned musician Joan Jeanrenaud).

The collaboration is the first of its kind for both Varon and Jeanrenaud as well as for its director, David Ford, who is perhaps the most prominent director of solo theater pieces in the country, having shepherded into production plays written and performed by Brian Copeland, Geoff Hoyle and countless others. He and Varon have been working together for 25 years.

Jeanrenaud, who knew neither Ford nor Varon before embarking upon the project a little less than a year ago, came into the mix by chance. Varon was wandering through an exhibit at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, listening to an audio guide that featured artists in various fields responding to the artwork. As he contemplated a bust of St. Paul, Varon became enraptured by the original cello compositions by Jeanrenaud. “The cello,” he says, “is the great instrument for expressing the inner life . . . and ‘Second Time Around’ is deeply interior.” He was inspired by her gorgeous music to reach out to her about working together.

In the narrative, a shy and awkward teenager interviews the central character, Ben, one of the residents of the retirement home and a former World War II bomber pilot, for a school report. For Ben, that interview—which he reluctantly agrees to as a favor for the teenager’s grandmother, who also lives in the home—stirs up all sorts of memories and deep yearnings. His own grandchildren are so far away—as settlers in Israel—as to be unreachable. The memories also awaken within Ben a desire for a last love. The story unfolds entirely through Ben’s point of view, much of it inside his mind. Varon was inspired by a bomber pilot he’d known. “This story keeps him in my heart,” says Varon. “It was very powerful for me to imagine that world, that time, that war, and what it is to carry those memories for 70 years.”

When he returned home from New York, Varon arranged to be introduced to Jeanrenaud, a performer/composer whose stellar career includes 20 years as cellist with the Kronos Quartet, solo CDs, collaborations with many other musical artists and performances in film scores. “At first I wasn’t convinced that it would work,” confesses Jeanrenaud. “I thought, ‘I’ll just be in the way.’ But Charlie and I were together from the get-go. And David is amazing—such good insight. He’ll say, ‘This section should move, should have tension’—and he’s always right. That surprised me, too, because I’d never had direction like that before.”

If it opened up a whole new world of cross-disciplinary collaboration for actor/playwright and musician, it did the same for Ford. He has previously directed solo shows with music—most recently, Wayne Harris’ “Mother’s Milk,” in which composer/pianist Randy Craig accompanies Harris’ autobiographical tale of growing up amidst gospel and blues in St. Louis. But for “Second Time Around,” Ford knew right off that this project needed a different approach. “I didn’t want it to be like ‘Peter and the Wolf,’” he explains, “text with classical music.” Nor did he want it to be a musical. He wanted a true duet: “One moment the cello takes the foreground, one moment it’s the voice, then they trade off, then they’re in counterpoint . . .

“It’s interesting to find out,” he adds, “that the language and sensitivity to emotion, and how emotion builds into a journey—which I’ve learned in the world of solo performance—becomes interesting language for Joan to play around with in the world of music.”

Those two worlds, of music and of narrative performance, only seem to enhance each other, as seen in a late January rehearsal at Jeanrenaud’s house in Bernal Heights. Jeanrenaud sat at her cello, with her original score—which uses many idioms, including jazz, classical and avant-garde and includes Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” and Duke Ellington’s version of the song “The Second Time Around”) propped up on a music stand, a desktop computer behind her; she’d composed the music, based initially on central emotional themes suggested by Ford, in rehearsals and at home alone: improvising, recording, experimenting, notating, tweaking.

Early in the rehearsal, Ford and Varon sat, eyes closed, listening intently as Jeanrenaud practiced the overture, the music varying from frenetic and percussive to melodic to thrillingly staccato. Moving on to a scene in the middle of the story, Varon read while Jeanrenaud played under his narrative and in pauses between bits of text, the musical responses so clear that they began to seem at various times like punctuation, or a Greek chorus, or subtext—or perhaps another character, or Ben’s alter ego. The two performers discussed matching each other’s tempo and rhythm. Moving on to the end of the play to experiment with their timing, Varon read, “[Ben] excused himself, went into the bathroom and cried,” and Jeanrenaud’s cello wept with him and for him or even in a more exalted realm beyond him—a sort of existential sobbing that, as Varon continued reading, bubbled into laughter. “How did you approach that?” Ford asked Jeanrenaud. “I made an octave change,” said the cellist. “I tried to make it continuous.” At a certain point, she said, she started holding notes. “The music is the emotional truth,” observed Varon. “The words are descriptors—little pathetic labels!” Yet for Jeanrenaud, it is Varon’s very words that drive her as she scores his story.

For Ford, it’s astonishing to play in what he calls “this highly abstracted world of music.” He says, “I’ll give some complicated explanation of what’s happening someplace emotionally, and Joan will go, ‘Oh, I should go up an octave.’” He marvels that she knows exactly how it changes an emotional sequence to go up an octave.

Muses Varon, “From the moment she plays the overture you’re immersing the audience in this gorgeous music, which I think opens up a layer of consciousness. Throughout there are these solos, which in a way stop time and allow the audience to experience the emotions that the characters are experiencing.” The characters include not just Ben and the bumbling teenager and the kid’s grandmother but also Ben’s long-ago, World War II mates, and Selma, a particularly vivacious and charming resident of the home who has appeared in other stories in Varon’s retirement home series, including a cameo in “Feisty Old Jew.”

Varon moves gracefully between narrative storytelling mode and embodying the various characters. “‘Time’ feels very different from any other show I’ve done,” he says. “In this combination of music, literature and theater, somehow the rules are very different. You can linger longer in emotion. It slows things down in a really interesting way. It’s a more contemplative form of storytelling….” In this hybrid genre, he says, the story feels bigger than him—it exists independently.

“The cello is giving Charlie back all his emotion, amplified,” Ford explains. In rehearsal, he has observed that Varon finds a spark in the story and Jeanrenaud picks up on it and turns it into a blaze.

Says Varon, “This whole five-year experiment of trying to find a way to put stories onstage, to take a literary form and make it compelling and thrilling onstage—this feels like a whole new sub-chapter of that experiment.”

“Second Time Around: A Duet for Cello and Storyteller”

March 5-April 17

The Marsh, 1062 Valencia St., San Francisco

(415) 282-3055/