I'm not even going to pretend that I understand everything that's going on in Tommy Smith's “Sextet” the passionate and innovative fantasia on themes of creativity, divinity, lust and loyalty that is now being presented by Washington Ensemble Theatre.
About as far removed from naturalism and its representation of “real” people leading realistic lives as a play can get, this floating netherworld of creative expression is filled with great composers and the people who try to love them. At times the voices overlap, at times echo, at other times speak in terrible isolation and always to indistinct degrees of comprehension. The play opens with a musical conductor standing in a shallow pool of water, conducting an aggressive and dissonant piece of music. The action of each of these characters is similarly assertive and fiercely non-melodic. Three love triangles disconnected in time and place join and separate these individuals. I think it is fair to say that the play is trying to find some coherence in the cacophony of voices, trying to find the “sixth voice” that emerges from the conjoined tones of the others to complete an existential sextet in which meaning completes the harmony.
If that sounds like a pretty abstract concept it's because it really is, and this play has no hesitation about being difficult, ephemeral and obtuse while presenting the most physically embodied of human relationships, the most visceral and tortured of religious pursuits, the most fleshly of sexual interactions. The classical conceits of music, especially modern music, are combined with themes from Russian literature and even from Dante, all to simmer in this stew of creative spirits attempting to transcend their human reality and forever being overcome by that same common humanity. Roger Benington is an expert at directing this sort of intellectually rigorous, artistically challenging and non-traditional theater, and in this production he employs a strong and well-balanced cast to give us an accurate and finished presentation of this work.
In Andrea Bryn Bush's excellent set design, everyone enters this place through a pale, bland wall with indistinct doors, and all move through their action in that shallow water, at times breezing through it, at times lying as submerged as its depth will allow, but each person, each relationship, being variously saturated by it at some time. An outstanding lighting design, by Andrew D. Smith, allows that initial conductor, Brandon J. Simmons (who also plays Arnold Schoenberg) to emerge from complete blackness into an image so dim that it is literally only a shadow in the darkness. At other times the illumination is so brilliant that you wince, and violent, erotic episodes are covered in an illumination that is simultaneously warm and dangerous. Visually, this production is stunning and wholly consistent with the dramatic experimentation taking place.
Like a symphony orchestra, the ensemble in this play is the single instrument producing the totality of its composition. Each member of this nine person cast plays confidently and well. Emerging as a central figure, Hannah Victoria Franklin plays Donna Maria Davalos with an amazing blend of strength and sensuality, a woman of depth and passion whose desires drive and destroy other souls, including her own. Brandon Simmons was filled with musical intelligence as Schoenberg and Heather Persinger as his wife, Mathilde, brought consequence to a lesser being, real sympathy to her touching soliloquy late in the play. I also thought John Abramson as Tchaikovsky was complex and contained, so much the possessor and prisoner of his internal reality.
“Sextet” is not for your Saturday night theater audience looking for a pleasant entertainment. It is, however, an ambitious, accomplished exploration of where humanity finds itself after the redefinitions of modern music, modern art and modern theater. That, in the end, we are such eternal vessels of our needs, our expressions, our desire for spiritual reality is both satisfying and, on a primal and chaotic level, profoundly distressing. As Beckett said, “I can't go on. I'll go on.”