The Music Teacher
nytheatre.com review by George Hunka
March 3, 2006
Desire and passion thwarted can be destructive things indeed, and the first to be destroyed is he who thwarts their proper outlets: consummation, shared love, and tenderness. The sexual energies engendered by this passion and desire must be dissipated, and if not dissipated in love they are dissipated in seedy encounters that render passion and desire themselves ugly and undesirable. It’s only worse if the lovers try to idealize their attraction to each other in a work of art. Reality can never hope to match artistic creation, however imperfect; this is the final twist of the knife.
This is the tragic message of The Music Teacher, the fine, sensually textured, and haunting play/opera by brothers Wallace Shawn (play and libretto) and Allen Shawn (music) and directed by the accomplished Irish theatre, opera, and film director Tom Cairns. The production at the Minetta Lane Theatre is the world premiere of the show, originally written in 1983 and then rejected by every theatre to which the creators submitted it. It opens here under the aegis of The New Group, which produced a fine revival of Wallace Shawn’s Aunt Dan and Lemon three years ago.
The play opens with Jack Smith, an aging music professor in a small town, a loving husband and father of several children, who admits that his life is conventional, peaceful, passionless, and unimportant. He likes it that way. He does have a hobby, though: collecting images and memories from his past and going through them in his mind every once in a while. He begins to tell a story from his early adulthood as an unmarried music instructor at a small private school and his collaboration with Jane, a bright teenaged student. They compose an opera together: she the libretto, a romantic fantasy about a forbidden love set in ancient Greece, he the music, a delicate atonal score (excellently rendered here by an acoustic, unamplified five-piece chamber ensemble under the baton of music director Timothy Long). The collaboration heightens their attraction for each other, and, in one of the beautiful, lyrical monologues for which the playwright is renowned, Jane describes how, hidden behind a tree, she watches Jack as he tenderly masturbates next to a lake in the moonlight the night before the opera’s premiere. The premiere itself sets off an erotic crisis in the older man, which he tries to escape by fleeing the school and indulging in various sexual encounters in a nearby city. But Jane follows him; by the time she finds her teacher, he is beyond her own redemptive desire for him.
Several of the roles are doubled between singing and speaking parts; Allen Shawn’s score requires highly trained musical voices, but Wallace Shawn’s words require unusually compassionate and talented actors. (In addition, older and younger versions of the same character often appear on stage simultaneously, as maturity considers the immature self.) Mark Blum brings a painful fear and trembling to the role of the older Smith, his humble demeanor masking an ill-concealed vulnerability; Kellie Overbey as the grown-up and married Jane maintains a mysterious reserve of sexual potency under a seemingly contented exterior. The singing roles of Young Smith, Young Jane, and Jim (Jane’s schoolmate and future husband) were excellently performed by tenor Jeffrey Picón, soprano Sarah Wolfson, and Jason Forbach at the performance reviewed (they alternate with Wayne Hobbs, Kathryn Skemp, and Ross Benoliel, respectively).
This is a very dark evening, as might be expected, but it’s got its light moments as well. The production of the opera itself is an intentional demonstration of endearing stage ineptitude that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a high school or college opera production (the heroine of Jane’s opera offers a visitor coffee from a French press, which you won’t see in any ancient Greek frescoes; a male character wears hiking boots and a trenchcoat over his toga), and Shawn’s play and libretto exhibit a dry and easy wit. He also has an ear for the anachronisms that may appear in an ambitious, romantic teenage girl’s first attempt at an opera.
The Music Teacher brings a new dimension to Wallace Shawn’s reputation. Shawn’s more celebrated plays have been quite minimalist in their production needs (The Designated Mourner consists largely of three interwoven monologues delivered without décor, movement or costumes; The Fever is delivered by an individual sitting in a chair). One wouldn’t have expected his name to be associated with such a thing as an opera. But in a way, it’s of a piece with all of his work: Shawn’s idiosyncratic, lyrical language lends itself to his brother’s atonal music startlingly well. The Music Teacher illuminates the musicality of Shawn’s language in his other plays, which demand close listening.
The sets, designed by director Cairns, and the video design by Greg Emetaz bring an imaginative eye to this unusual, provocative evening; my only quibble would be with the acoustics of the Minetta Lane Theatre: the song that opens the show, performed by offstage voices, is barely comprehensible, and the structure of the theatre tends to flatten the individual singing voice. But there’s scarcely anything that Cairns and the brothers Shawn can do about that.