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Gambit Weekly A Work In Progress

By Dalt Wonk

NOVEMBER 3, 1997:  Composing Tchaikovsky, an original play that premiered recently at Tulane's Lupin Theatre, begins with a rather extended silent prologue in which a number of well-turned-out 19th century Russian citizens promenade and chit-chat inaudibly -- as though before entering a concert hall.

I found myself scrutinizing the actors, wondering which one was Tchaikovsky.

This scrutiny, I must confess, was not mere idle curiosity. Incarnating a historic figure is a hazardous occupation. And if that figure also is a tempestuous, troubled Romantic genius, the actor has entered a high-stakes game, so to speak. For the life of a great artist is notoriously difficult to present in a credible manner.

One of the more famous examples of this dilemma was a film biography of Beethoven in which the maestro's significant other sweeps over to the piano with these words of breathless encouragement: "Forget about me, Ludwig. Finish your symphony!"

As it turned out, my apprehensions for the actor who was to play Tchaikovsky were unfounded. Playwright Laura Edmondson has prudently avoided the pitfalls of portraying genius by eliminating the central character entirely from the script.

She has chosen instead to make her play about the two women in Tchaikovsky's life: his wife, Antonina Ivanovna (Alice Johnson) and his long-time patroness, Nadezhda Filaretovna (Heather Hollingsworth).

These women, who probably never met, are presented in an imaginary theatrical dimension. Antonina, on one side of the stage, inhabits her room in the asylum where she spends most of her life writing a memoir called My Life with Tchaikovsky. Nadezhda, on the other side of the stage, inhabits the sitting room in her home, where she carries on her obsessive correspondence with the composer she is supporting.

The women have two modes of being, theatrically speaking. In one, they are aware of each other and the audience, whom they address as "our guests." They argue bitterly over who will be considered to be the more important influence on the composer. Nadezhda's claim rests on her myriad letters and the decades-long friendship, which was, however, entirely platonic and epistolary, while Antonina can boast of matrimony -- though it lasted only months and was a fiasco since husband Piotr liked boys. Nonetheless, her memoirs, full of juicy personal details, will be her ticket to vicarious posthumous glory.

The women bicker and trade nasty remarks -- always couching their arguments in terms that allow them to impart significant facts about the composer's life (a habit which is shared by the other characters). This subliminal lecture is interrupted at times of emotional stress by Nadezhda, who has imported into this vague theatrical dimension a full (though off-stage) orchestra that launches into selections of the composer's work upon command.

Nadezhda (Heather Hollingsworth) and Antonina (Alice Johnson) bicker about who was the most influential in Composing Tchaikovsky.

The symphonic interludes invariably sweep us into the parterre of a theater at the rear of the stage where the before-mentioned Russian citizens are attending a concert. We hear much prurient gossip about Tchaikovsky's homosexuality. And we get to meet Doctor Korsakov (Scott Gustavson), who is treating Antonina, as well as Shykhmatov (Isaac Colunga), the husband of Nadezhda's daughter, Milochka (Jennifer Bennett).

These two men figure prominently in the series of scenes that make up the other stage reality. In these scenes, Antonina and Nadezhda live out their separate dramas. Antonina spars with her doctor while seeking solace in a liaison with another female inmate, Sonia (Leslie Gastineau). Meanwhile, Nadezhda is forced by her son-in-law to discontinue her support of Tchaikovsky. After this, she waits in vain for further letters from the composer.

Of course, focusing not on Tchaikovsky, but rather the lives of those he touched during his desperate struggle for success is not a bad idea in itself. But to do that one must give up the biographical urge entirely, and enter in a convincing way into the psyche of these women who tried to live in the reflected glow of his vitality. I'm not sure that saying things like "his music became fingers slipping around inside my dress" gives an adequate sense of their spiritual state.

As the incarcerated Antonina, Alice Johnson was nimble, though more 1990 than 1890 in attitude and tone, while Heather Hollingsworth managed at times to give her Nadezhda an inner life with glimmers of dignity and pain.

Director Lisa Jo Epstein is to be commended for taking a chance on new, untried and unconventional script. But, in every aspect, Composing Tchaikovsky was shown to be very much a work-in-progress.

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