My Wife Is Not Well
Water, Sex, Murder, Suicide, and Music in Sextet
Laurie Clark Photography
It would have been too easy to present a brand-new play with nine actors simultaneously playing three love triangles from three time periods on the tiny stage on 19th Avenue. So director Roger Benington added an inch of water covering the stage and set the action—the violent love lives of composers Arnold Schoenberg, Peter Tchaikovsky, and Carlo Gesualdo—sloshing. You gotta love Washington Ensemble Theatre, kicking off its seventh season with Sextet. Sex indeed: oral, missionary, and standing up—all wet, of course, given the setting. And murder and suicide. Oh, and music.
Tommy Smith wrote Sextet. (He was raised in Seattle and passed through the University of Washington on his way to Juilliard and the East Coast.) The script is a musical composition. It calls for all three stories to take place up against each other onstage. Each one is a theme, and together they develop into a harmonics governed by rhythm. Each pair of characters in conversation is like a section in the orchestra, and then suddenly the orchestra will break into a tutti, or unison, passage, in shared lines like "You always say that" and "Can we talk about something else?" Apparently, the language of love triangles is universal, whether you're a 16th-century Italian prince writing madrigals (Gesualdo), a 20th-century intellectual on the verge of inventing 12-tone music (Schoenberg), or a closeted gay 19th-century romantic (Tchaikovsky). "My wife is well," all three intone. But she's not.
Mathilde Schoenberg (Heather Persinger) is not a particularly exciting woman, but she is perennially bored and a touch callow, the kind who causes suffering without anyone really knowing how. In her wake she leaves envy and a noose. Antonina Milyukova (Samantha Leeds), the naive, baby-voiced young wife of Tchaikovsky, goes tittering mad. And Gesualdo's sultry wife, Donna Maria D'Avalos (Hannah Victoria Franklin), is the sexual superior of her husband; no wonder the way he kills her and her lover is by furious stabbing, attempting (horrifyingly) to do in death what he can't in life.
Smith's dialogue is swift and active, if the monologues don't quite pull their weight. Given how much territory Smith is covering, it seems right that the play has more action than reflection. But the ratio could use more balance, since what it all adds up to, besides some good entertainment, is still a little hard to say. (That also may explain why the play essentially has no ending; it stops rather than finishes.)
The script is the score, and WET plays it with authority and style. The set, by Andrea Bryn Bush, is nothing but water, a shelf doubling as a piano keyboard, and walls with molding (as in some kind of cross-historical sitting room). The real set pieces are the increasingly wet bodies of the performers, propped all over the place like native inhabitants in this magical reality. The actors carry the strangeness of the environment as if they don't notice it, while also using the water as a weapon and an aphrodisiac. And both the writing and the performances avoid any crusty historicisms; Prince Gesualdo (Chris MacDonald) is just a conflicted product of his own divine right, Schoenberg (Brandon Simmons) is a nerd wishing he were less vulnerable to other people than he really is, and Tchaikovsky (John Abramson) is simply the classic tormented closet case. All these actors, plus the third legs of the triangles (James James, Anthony Palmer, and Steven Ackley), do double duty as real-life personages and floating fantasies, and there's not a flat one in the group. You should hear some of the notes they sound together.