I had water onstage in one play I directed. My production of Lysistrata during my senior year of college featured the women’s chorus tossing buckets of water on the men’s chorus, exactly as called for in the play. Since we were in a small blackbox space, being an undergraduate theatre company, there was much arguing about whether we should use actual water. Our production manager insisted we use blue confetti, because water was dangerous — it would get everywhere, then actors would slip around on the stage and fall, or maybe it would get in the wires somehow. I insisted we use actual water. I bought buckets, put far less than even 1/4 of an inch of water in each, and tested them on the poor men’s chorus, outdoors, before finally putting it onstage. Three buckets with maybe 1/2 inch of water between them is not so dangerous on stage, as it turns out: the water dries up very quickly, but the splash against bodies was huge and effective. The audience gasped.
Water and fire are two elements almost never seen onstage, so there’s something of a mystique about them. They are so hard to control that introducing them is shocking, to the point of distraction in many cases.
That sums up part of my experience with “SEXTET”, Washington Ensemble Theatre’s latest play. There’s no fire, but the stage was transformed into a pool with about an inch of water in the bottom, which reflects light off the walls and sloshes about during entrances and exits. Blackouts between scenes make the theatre feel, as the character of Gesualdo says, like a womb.
But Gesualdo’s reference to baths in the dark is the only reason for the stage to be this way. Otherwise, it is a beautiful and almost dangerous distraction from the action of the play. I loved the set, it was beautiful and haunting, but I shouldn’t walk away from a play saying that I liked the set, or the blocking (which I was equally mesmerized by). I should walk away from a play dazzled by the acting, or the story. And when it comes down to it, I feel like there wasn’t a story.
The play is basically a series of snapshots from the lives of three composers — Schoenberg, Tchaikovsky, and Gesualdo. They are portrayed as deeply tortured artists, whose torment is reflected in their sex lives, their wives consumed by their torment as much as they try to consume the composers. And all three have something in common: they suffer from love triangles. Schoenberg’s wife runs off with his best friend (whom Schoenberg then, apparently, torments into suicide); Tchaikovsky is married to a beautiful young woman, but in love with his nephew; and Gesualdo’s femme fatale wife is fucking her Latin tutor, a sin for which he brutally murders her.
I’m a hard sell on the “tortured artist” story anyway. I think it’s an easy target for any kind of writing because it elicits the same kind of interest as gossip rags and soap operas. The inherent problem with this narrative, though, is that it is not universal or sympathetic. Instead, it puts distance between the audience and the artist, because we the plebs don’t suffer much in our daily lives; these poor souls have to be beaten by priests and see visions of their murdered wives, or sadistically control the minds of others, or attach all their life’s meaning to an incestuous relationship, simply to compose beautiful music. I understand that there are interesting links between schizophrenia and creativity, but I find that the tortured artist concept is not only self-indulgent, it’s self-defeating. How is an audience supposed to go with you on an emotional journey when you have implicitly erected a wall between them and you, because you are an artiste and we are common? Obviously we’re too common to really understand you.
Perhaps the playwright’s point was how detrimental this view is. These three composers kept their loved ones at arm’s length, didn’t discuss their work, treated everyone around them like crap because, really, who can understand a tortured creative soul? But I didn’t feel much when their relationships fell apart (except for Tchaikovsky — portrayed beautifully by John Abramson, I felt deeply hurt for the very real torment this poor man went through). This is not to say that the actors were bad. The actors were amazing. The script, with its frenetic synchronous conversations, gave me a lot of ear candy when lines lined up, when conversations overlapped, but didn’t give me much through-line; in fact, it distracted me too much to follow exactly what was going on.
There was a definite rhythm and flow to how snippets were put together. I think it was supposed to be like a symphony, many instruments combining and harmonizing to create one full sound, one effect. But it was too scattered, and ultimately too superficial. The overall effect was more like really good pop music: the beat is good, that lead singer’s vocals are beautiful, that guitar solo was pretty awesome, but the lyrics are too generic to mean anything. It’s empty. And I think that is a terrible disservice to the true stories of the composers featured in this play. Their music endures because it has deep meaning, for them and for us. It is not fluff. But this play is.