Michael Van Duzer Reviews - Theater

With the world premiere production of Fugue, playwright Tommy Smith delves into the lives and psyches of three classical composers: Carlo Gesualdo, Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and Arnold Schoenberg. Tchaikovsky, of course, is one of the most popular composers of all time, and his musical themes are well-known. Schoenberg, despite his importance to modern music, worked in a style resolutely guaranteed to find him little popularity outside of music critics and academics. Gesualdo, if he’s known at all by the average concert-goer, is more famous for his personal life than his compositions.

But, with Fugue, Smith is unconcerned with conventional biography. The title embraces both definitions of the word—the musical form as well as the mental state. For all of these seemingly disparate composers share one thing: lives that flirt, to a greater or lesser degree, with madness, scandal, and death. Gesualdo discovered his wife and her lover in flagrante and slew them both. Tchaikovsky was tortured throughout his life by his homosexuality and chose to poison himself in a desperate, though largely successful, attempt to protect his reputation. Schoenberg was betrayed by both his wife, Mathilde, and his friend, the painter Richard Gerstl, when they had a brief affair. After Mathilde returned to Schoenberg, Gerstl killed himself.

Smith’s language is a heightened speech which occasionally moves into near poetic flights, leavened with a generous touch of earthy crudity. He also develops several “concerted” scenes in which each narrative shares the stage simultaneously, and the dialog approximates the fugue pattern by weaving in and out of the scenes, while phrases, spoken in unison, punctuate the action.

The production is stripped to its essentials. Blood red draperies surround the stage, and a few sticks of anonymous furniture conjure the playing spaces. This makes the costume design even more critical than usual, as it carries the weight of distinguishing among each of the historical periods. Michael Mullen’s smart costume choices make this easy.

Director Chris Fields clearly delineates the overlapping stories and carefully builds each act to a potent and harrowing climax. While none of the violence is gratuitous, neither is it sanitized. A couple of audience members sharing my row were audibly offended and left at intermission.

Fields’ cast is uniformly strong, led by Troy Blendell’s compelling Schoenberg, Christopher Shaw’s convincing Tchaikovsky as martinet, and Karl Herlinger’s disturbed-from-the-start Gesualdo. Jesse Fair’s Gerstl and Amanda Lovejoy Street’s Mathilde create the kind of erotic sparks which can only lead to tragedy. Alana Dietze’s Antonina, Eric Keitel’s Vladimir (Bob), Jeanne Syquia’s Donna Maria and Justin Huen’s Fabrizio are all well performed, but, as their characters are essentially reactive, they have less opportunity to carry the drama.

Fugue is an adult work which demands concentration while in the theater and may haunt you after the lights go up.

Echo Theater Company at Atwater Village Theatre   2/14 – 3/22/15   www.echotheatercomapny.com