A fugue, in music, is a melody repeated in complex patterns. In psychiatry, it’s a dissociative state of mind. Playwright Tommy Smith infuses both meanings into his ambitious new play, Fugue.
Smith’s subjects are Arnold Schoenberg, Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Carlo Gesualdo — heralded composers from different centuries and from varying cultures. The truths that this fascinating piece aspires to divulge are of the broadest nature, having to do with the artist’s struggle to balance life and work, and his or her efforts to painfully wrestle with the most basic human desires while preserving enough focus to fashion great art.
Both Schoenberg and Gesualdo were cuckolds. The unsentimental Schoenberg (Troy Blendell) chafed at the demands of marital life, ignoring or dismissing his spouse (Amanda Lovejoy Street) so often that she fell into the waiting arms of another man, painter Richard Gerstl (Jesse Fair).
Schoenberg, a late 19th to 20th century Jewish intellectual, at least handled matters of infidelity with civilized acrimony. Gesualdo, a powerful 17th century nobleman and a relative of the Pope, brutally and unhesitatingly murdered his wife and her lover and — legally, anyway — got away with it.
Like the others, Gesualdo (Karl Herlinger) was an expressive experimental artist, centuries ahead of his time. Haunted by guilt for the murders, he later was driven to flagellate, seeking to self-inflict the punishment the law had spared him.
Tchaikovsky (Christopher Shaw), though he lived in fear that his homosexuality would be exposed, nonetheless was driven to abandon his young wife (Alana Dietze) and go live with his nephew (Eric Keitel) with whom he was having an affair.
Director Chris Fields carries out these complicated and colorful stories with depth and precision. Each of the three leads is spot-on, with a mostly strong supporting ensemble highlighted by Matt Richter’s striking lighting design.
It is the movement, the timing and the brilliant staging of sex, suicide and slaughter that make the production extraordinary. It’s very much a directorial coup.
Echo Theater Company at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village; through March 22. (310) 307-3753, echotheatercompany.com.
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