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Christopher Shaw and Eric Keitel in rehearsal for "Fugue." (Photo by Darrett Sanders)

Love, Sex, Death and Classical Music Overlap in ‘Fugue’

Tommy Smith’s new play at the Echo Theater Company moves along 3 tracks as it follows 3 great classical musicians and their chaotic love lives.

LOS ANGELES: Renaissance Italy, Tsarist Russia and early-20th-century Austria provide the settings for Fugue, at the Echo Theater Company Feb. 14–March 22.

But geography is the least of the complexities on tap in Tommy Smith’s new play, which intertwines three fact-based love triangles from the world of classical music. Smith zeros in on three iconoclasts whose influence on the form continues to the present day: Carlo Gesualdo, Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Arnold Schoenberg. These three could hardly be further apart musically. But, as playwright Smith—whose Firemen was a breakout hit for Echo in 2014—puts it, “I sort of X-rayed the skeleton of how they discovered the thing that made them famous, which in turn resulted in a death, or a murder, or a suicide.”

Fugue’s tripartite narratives move at once, much like the interlocking themes evoked by the play’s title. Says Smith: “Sometimes they overlap, sometimes they alternate. At one point there are 26 scenes in 15 minutes.” Director Chris Fields, a self-described “classical music nut” (who also staged Fireman), elaborates: “You have these three separate stories going on simultaneously. Each act is like a movement—one is linear, two is counterpoint, three is linear again. And everything of substance, plot-wise, is factual.”

As Gesualdo struggles with chromaticism, Tchaikovsky grapples with the second movement of his “Pathetique” symphony, while Schoenberg tackles the 12-tone scale—and each tangles with romantic calamity. As Smith notes, “What’s especially fascinating is how much each historic situation parallels the others, with a lover, a composer and a partner in every case.”

Fields concurs, noting that all three narratives address “the creative thing within us, and how it’s connected with love and sex, and how it can turn chaotic.” He thinks audiences will “identify with how hard love can be, and how much sacrifice it takes to create.” Heady topics aside, Smith hopes that audiences will have “a visceral experience rather than an intellectual one, and maybe even leave a little overwhelmed.”

Maybe even in something of a fugue state.

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