Photo by Darrett Sanders
Photo by Darrett Sanders
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Reviewed by Bill Raden

Echo Theater Company at Atwater Village Theatre

Through March 29




Federico Fellini once famously declared that “All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster’s autobiography.” He might well have added that great art about great artists — particularly on the stage — tends to be a rare and, at best, artistically redundant thing.


Fugue, Tommy Smith’s formally virtuosic new play about three visionary composers from the Western classical music tradition, happens to be both rare and artistically redundant. What it isn’t, is run-of-the-mill, either in the biographical or the oyster sense. Smith is after bigger fish.

And Fugue’s composers are three of the biggest: Arnold Schoenberg (Troy Blendell), the Viennese modernist whose pioneering experiments with atonality and twelve-tone serialism broke radical ground for the 20th century’s musical avant-garde; Piotr Tchaikovsky (Christopher Shaw), the Late Romantic melodist whose emotionally expressive merging of Russian folk and Western symphonic traditions still speaks to the hot-blooded adolescent in us all; and Carlo Gesualdo (Karl Herlinger), the Italian prince and late-Renaissance writer of sacred madrigals whose rule-bending harmonies and chromatic intensity were so ahead of their time that they wouldn’t be heard again until the era of Wagner.


Of the three, only Gesualdo defies the conventional wisdom that says great artists tend to be interesting because of their art rather than their lives. The infamy that he earned by the carefully premeditated, in flagrante murder of his pinup-worthy wife Donna Maria (Jeanne Syquia) and her dashing lover Duke Fabrizio Carafa (Justin Huen) is the savage stuff of an old Roger Corman-Vincent Price horror movie. Throw in another 20 years of bizarre beatings and other transgressive, sadomasochistic “penance” that Gesualdo enjoyed from a string of younger men, and the prince could easily qualify as the hero of, well, a signature brutalist drama by Tommy Smith.


Here, however, that grisly tale is joined by two somewhat less outré but just as tragically fatal love triangles plucked from the lives of Schoenberg and Tchaikovsky. The former deals with the brief affair between Schoenberg’s wife Mathilde (Amanda Lovejoy Street) and their close friend and neighbor, the Expressionist painter Richard Gerstl (Jesse Fair). The latter chronicles the deeply closeted Tchaikovsky’s unconsummated marriage to the neurotic music student Antonina Miliukova (standout Alana Dietze) and his romantic involvement with his nephew Vladimir Davidov (Eric Keitel).


On the level of ideas, the real coup in Fugue — and part of what elevates the play from lurid, highbrow soap opera — is hinted at by the self-conscious and formal complexity implied in its title. By overlapping and interlacing three historical narratives in which emotional trauma is resolved in a defining work of radical artistic transformation, Smith draws an uncomfortably fine line between our darkest, most sociopathic compulsions and the violent discontinuities that shape artistic discourse.


On the level of staging, director Chris Fields’s deliberate and crisply engaging production confidently tames the sometimes jarring severity of Smith’s historical concisions (Fugue tends to treat facts like a pull of saltwater taffy) while a superb ensemble skillfully delivers the play’s mordantly shocking humor along with its classical music lessons. All of the above are seductively grounded in Drew Dalzell’s illustrative sound, Matt Richter’s chiaroscuro lights and, most of all, by the intricate elegance of Michael Mullen’s lustrous period costuming.


Echo Theater Company at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through March 29. (310) 307-3753,