“Fugue”: Tell Tchaikovsky the news – sexual atonality

LOS ANGELES – Do you have a guilty pleasure, Dear Reader? Your galavanting reviewer confesses to one that whiles away the hours during long haul flights: Reading books that stick their big noses into the private lives of geniuses. While soaring through the stratosphere over the Pacific Islands or aboard trans-Atlantic flights, tell-all biographies of Pablo Picasso, John Lennon, and Marlon Brando have been eagerly consumed. These prying eyes can’t get enough of those salacious details! It may be poor manners but there’s nothing like reading the personal letters and diary entires of others to pass the time away (as our three amigos, N, S, & A well know!). 

So it was with great interest that I attended the world premiere of the cleverly titled Fugue. In it, playwright Tommy Smith delves into the sex lives of not one, not two, but three – count ’em – musical geniuses! It’s a veritable tabloid-apalooza of invasions of privacy which Smith lays bare (but not bare enough, as you’ll soon see!), exposing the purported behind-closed-doors peccadilloes of a trio of composers and their consorts and cohorts.

The musicians are: The brilliant Piotr Tchaikovsky (Christopher Shaw), who gave the world such supreme pleasure, with wonderful works such as “Swan Lake,” “The Nutcracker Suite,” etc., in the 19th century. But bestowing such splendor upon his fellow humans wasn’t quite enough for patriarchal Czarist society, which stipulated that the gay composer also live up to its strict heterosexual code of behavior. To say the least, complications ensue when Tchaikovsky weds Antonina (Alana Dietze), and his long suffering bride/beard decides to, shall we say, shave. (Astute cinephiles may recall a sort of comical reenactment of Tchaikovsky’s mock marriage in Ken Russell’s 1969 Women in Love, based on D. H. Lawrence’s novel – and, by the way, one of the best cinematic adaptations of literature in screen history.)

Our next troubled talent is Arnold Schoenberg (Troy Blendell), the 20th-century Austrian innovator of atonal music and the twelve-tone technique. Arnie’s wife Mathilde (the aptly named Amanda Lovejoy Street) takes up with the younger painter Richard Gerstl (Jesse Fair), who cuckolds his friend and sometime benefactor, the far more successful Schoenberg. (Hey, what are friends for?) Further complications ensue, as the ménage à trois careens down a sexual skid row.

Our final tortured composer is somebody this writer had never heard of, the genuinely creepy Carlo Gesualdo (Karl Herlinger), a 16th-century Italian musician who, according to press notes, was of noble rank and wrote intense chromatic music. Gesualdo gives new meaning to the term “Renaissance Man,” as he was also something of a genius when it came to hanky-spanky sex. The musical sadomasochist’s practices would make Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey blush 50 shades of red. Jeanne Syquia plays his partner-in-slime Donna Maria, and Justin Huen has a double role, as Fabrizio and the priest Gesualdo “confesses” to in this confessional play.

Smith’s script is interesting and Chris Fields’ direction skillful, with a cinematic touch. Fugue sort of uses a split screen technique and we sometimes have three sets of actors performing onstage at the same time, albeit in different times and places. This method of presentation is not only filmic, but also, musically, fugue-like. Michael Mullen’s period costumes are a good fit. The actors all acquit themselves well – but, alas, I have one quibble.

One imagines that the dramatist, director, company, et al, fancy themselves as being “daring” for presenting sex acts performed on the boards – albeit underneath blankets. Well, here’s a newsflash, and as Chuck Berry would say, “Tell Tchaikovsky the news”: Nudity has been legal onstage and onscreen since the 1960s in the United States. I would refer you to the Living Theatre, Hair, etc., as well as to Alan Bates and Oliver Reed’s wrestling romp au natural onscreen in the aforementioned Women in Love. Unlike Julian Beck and the Living Theatre company, performers today don’t have to worry about being busted for indecent exposure and the like.

Depicting undercover sex acts onstage and onscreen veiled by beach blanket bingos is not only a sexual copout, but an attempt to have your cake and eat it too: The production wants to titillate the audience with bawdiness without delivering the goods, while collaborating with America’s still puritanical norms and constraints. For another example, just consider that Showtime airs Masters of Sex, an entire fact-based series about those pioneering sex researchers Masters and Johnson, wherein not since 2013 has a single strand of pubic hair made its debut on this “shocking” series – although it is perfectly legal nowadays to do so on cable television. What sheer cowardice!

Artists went to jail, to court, etc., to win the right for free expression. To now have the legal right but for today’s talents not to make use of this hard-fought-for First Amendment protection is pretty spineless. If stage and screen productions are unwilling to depict people having sex the way they usually do in real life – you know, partially or completely unclothed – then they should keep sex acts relegated to offstage/offscreen inferred action. Quit trying to have it both ways – or go fugue yourselves.

Other than that, Fugue is a thought-provoking, well-acted two-act play. However, it will likely not be the cup of tea for ticket buyers who are offended, upset, etc., by violence onstage and/or simulated (even if hidden) sex acts. The Atwater Theatre Village complex seems to have become quite the cultural hub, which enhances the theatergoing experience and vibe. In any case, the next time this ranter and raver jet sets off to parts unknown he may read a copy of Fugue‘s script to make the hours slip more swiftly by while munching a bag of airline peanuts.

The Echo Theater Company’s production of Fugue runs through March 22 on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm; Sundays at 7:00 pm at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village (Los Angeles), CA 90039. Reservations: (310) 307-3753; www.echotheatercompany.com.


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/critic and co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist.