Written by Eve Wolf; Directed by Donald T. Sanders
Off Broadway, New Play With Music and Dance
Runs through 3.9.14
BAM Fisher Theatre, 321 Ashland Place, Brooklyn
by Weston Clay on 3.6.14
Rachel Lee Priday, Eve Wolf, Adrian Daurov and Ariel Bock in Tchaikovsky: None But the Lonely Heart. Photo by Enrico Spada.
BOTTOM LINE: The story of Tchaikovsky's strange and intimate relationship with the patroness he never met, beautifully interwoven with music and solo ballet.
Piotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky and Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck never met. The relationship between the legendary Russian composer and his widowed patroness, whose financing allowed him to fully pursue his talents in music, was nonetheless intensely intimate. Tchaikovsky: None But the Lonely Heart, Eve Wolf’s play presented by Ensemble for the Romantic Century at BAM, draws on a wealth of letters, diaries, and memoirs left behind by Tchaikovsky to tell the story of his relationship with von Meck, and to theorize about their abrupt and ultimate estrangement (evident in von Meck’s sudden refusal to return his letters) that left Tchaikovsky devastated in the last years of his life.
The plot of the play unfolds through the reading of letters that passed between Tchaikovsky and von Meck, as well as a few that Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother (with whom he was intensely close), and some passages from his diary. Since the two characters of the play never met, this format makes sense, but left as this, it could be a little dry.
Tchaikovsky isn’t simply a play of correspondences, however, but also draws on the composer’s vast oeuvre of music, which is performed on stage by a set of world-class musicians. The music works to both compliment the emotional arch of the play (Tchaikovsky was famous for using music as an expression of emotion) and to make real for the audience the thing that brought Tchaikovsky and von Meck together: his music. There are also appearances by a male ballet dancer (Daniel Mantei) whose presence both highlights Tchaikovsky’s role as a ballet composer (he wrote The Nutcracker, in case you need a refresher), but also plucks away at his emotions by representing all the fleeting male lovers that Tchaikovsky almost and never had. The result is a phenomenal hybrid of theater, orchestra, and ballet with an emotional punch to match its shimmering, aural beauty.
Simon Fortin plays Tchaikovsky, a man defined by both his homosexuality, which leads him to feel the torment of love that can never be fully realized, and the devastating loss of his mother as a child, which leaves him scrambling for a sense of stability that von Meck’s attention approximates for him. In fact, von Meck (Ariel Bock) unwittingly soothes both of Tchaikovsky’s deepest wounds: she gives him the unwavering affection of a good mother and, by refusing to meet him in the flesh, doesn’t threaten him with the female sexual desire that he finds so appalling. Fortin and Bock are two top-caliber actors, who can both deliver their lines with poetic beauty, and also express a wordless tale of emotions through facial expressions and posturing, particularly during the musical sequences, which take up more than half of the play’s two-hour run time.
Oh, the music! The most wonderful thing about this show is that the story, which on it’s own is simple and sparse, is interwoven with sequences of Tchaikovsky’s music and the on-stage performers responsible for the music are just phenomenal. Eve Wolf (yes, the same Eve Wolf who wrote the play), anchors the musical sequences on the piano, with Rachel Lee Priday on violin and Adrian Duarov on cello. It’s hard to pick a favorite of the three -- they’re all so good, with world-class symphonic credits -- and the opportunity to see musicians of this caliber in such a pared down and intimate setting is worth seizing. The same can be said of Blake Friedman (tenor), who sings some lovely songs in Russian, and Daniel Mantei (ballet dancer) whose mighty legs don't detract from his delicate grace.
Vanessa James, who miraculously designed both the period appropriate costumes (the dresses worn by Priday, both of them, were a highlight for me) and the delicate, draped set, didn't miss a mark. The talent in this production never seems to stop!
Tchaikovsky: None But the Lonely Heart is a rare opportunity to see top-caliber theater, symphony, and ballet, all synthesized into a relatively accessible story about a famous and interesting historical personality. If you find the ballet or the symphony intimidating or too expensive for good seats, this is a great way to get a taste of it all.
But hurry, it’s only playing through Sunday.
(Tchaikovsky: None But the Lonely Heart plays at BAM Fisher Theatre, 321 Ashland Place in Brooklyn, through March 9, 2014. Performances are Wednesday through Friday at 7:30PM; Saturday at 2PM and 7:30PM; and Sunday at 3PM. Tickets are $70-$95 and are available at BAM.org or by calling 718.636.4100.)