When a flamboyant “emcee” in the new play “Ghost Variations” climbs atop an old wardrobe trunk like a Carnival show barker and declares ‑ with a wink ‑ that what you are about to witness is the story of three 19th century German composers that may or may not be rooted in truth, the audience should indeed prepare for an intelligent and playful experiment in history, music and the fantastical.
In her workshop production Friday night at the Black Box Theatre, Anna Abhau Elliott, the 2015 theater artist-in-residence with Hub-Bub and the Spartanburg Little Theatre, first introduces us to Robert Schumann (Juan Williamson), Clara Schumann (Lauren Ferebee) and Johannes Brahms (Tim Giles) as “living portraits” through the use of carefully-placed empty gilded picture frames. And let’s not forget Ludwig Beethoven, or rather his ghost (the comical Liam MacDougall in a Scrooge nightdress), who hilariously inserts himself throughout the saga, whether invited or not.
And early on when Robert crams his ailing hand inside the entrails of a dead cat, Ms. Elliott, like Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali before her in “Un Chien Andalou,” boldly cements the surreal tone and boundless suspension of disbelief for the next two-and-a-half hours.
The story begins around 1834 in Robert Schumann’s early prolific period when he became a music critic and launched his popular “New Journal for Music” in which he wrote about the music of his contemporaries; he lauded newcomers Chopin and Berlioz, while disparaging Liszt and Wagner. He is enamored with the much younger teenage prodigy pianist Clara Wieck and they have a clandestine affair through love letters against her father‘s wishes.
They marry and have 8 children. Robert achieves major success with “Kinderszenen,” “Album für die Jugend,” “Blumenstück, “the Sonatas” and several symphonies, all the while Clara is composing and performing piano recitals all across the continent. The duo discovers and nurtures the 20-yeard old Brahms, Robert succumbs to syphilis and a lifelong mental affliction and dies at the end of the first act. Schumann wrote some of his finest pieces which hallucinating from his illness and tried to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge over the Rhine.
The second act is focused on Brahms and Clara’s relationship – and lack of commitment on Brahms’ part, emphatically making his case on the efficiency of “whores.” Brahms discovers Schubert’s previously unknown “Symphony No. 9,” is fired from his post as conductor of the Hannover Court Orchestra and although the two never marry, Clara and Brahms remain lifelong friends.
This much is, no doubt, true and it soon becomes acutely evident of how much research Elliott has amassed on her subjects.
Along the way, there is, of course, music. Lots of music. But not necessarily the music you are expecting. Hence Jimmy Buffet’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” hip-hop and a wrenching ballad for Robert’s death scene, which is one the evening’s most somber – and well done – moments. And what would happen if Bach and Beethoven were friends with the Beatles? We find out when the fab four arrives with “A Hard Day’s Night,” which is given nods again later on in the funniest scene in the play.
The constructed piano on stage is integral to the narrative as the focal point for the music writing, rehearsals and much of the dialogue, but it also functions as storage for costumes and props and even an entrance (yes, an entrance). There is an actual real piano, or at least keyboards, somewhere in there. While most of the music is pre-recorded (thanks sound designer Chandler Crawford), a few in the cast actually play the piano. Giles seems proficient on the ivories and Ferebee skillfully indulges us with Beethoven’s “Fur Elise.”
The egomaniacal “titan” Beethoven humorously hums his “Symphony No. 5” and “Symphony No. 9” in duets with Robert and Brahms, respectively. It is latter that inspires Brahms, with Beethoven’s ghost at his side, to write his “Symphony No. 1” in a sharp and clever “fast forward” scene ‑ a la the movie “A Hard Day’s Night” ‑ with Giles furiously writhing his quill and MacDougall bouncing all around the stage and into bed in a fast-motion sleeping/rolling over sequence. In reality, Brahms took 14 to 21 years to complete his masterpiece.
Oh yes, the bed. Besides the piano, much of the action in “Ghost Variations” occurs in bed, actually a stand-up simulated bed that is used to tremendous effect here. And this is the setting for much of the author’s artistic license with her source material and thoroughly modern dialogue on intimacy, sex, sexual identity (Robert’s bisexuality) and masturbation.
Williamson, in his Hub-Bub debut, is convincing as both Schumann, the mad but brilliant composer and Schumann, the devoted husband and family man, particularly in an early scene when he acts out the story of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar for his children. Giles is a beguiling Brahms and has fun as the wealthy artist who spends more time on carnal pleasures than managing his financial affairs and trunk-load of cash.
That brings us to Ferebee, who was the 2014 Hub-Bub/SLT Resident Playwright. She is Clara the muse, the caregiver, the artist, the mother and the piano concerto composer whose music and legacy have since been overshadowed by her male companions. Clara revolutionized the way concerts were presented, being among the first pianists to memorize music (i.e. no written score on her piano) and performing her own concertos.
Ferebee, with her hair (or maybe a wig) in a stylish period snood, or hairnet, and a bejeweled forehead band, looks like a world-renowned pianist even in maternity dresses. From the death scene to the racy pillow talk moments, her Clara has plenty of compassion, vulnerability and fortitude. And her character seems more at peace with her life and career choices than either her sickly husband or impulsive lover.
MacDougall too bilks Beethoven for all his musical and wit’s worth. This is a very physical role and he does not hold back, popping in and out of scenes just when we least expect, more like a court jester than the Ludwig we think we know.
In a stroke of innovative casting, director Patric Phillips has given the supporting roles to three young women who play multiple parts regardless of their character’s gender. This makes for ripe fruit for Joelle Gwinn in her various accents as the Actor (“emcee”) and later when she dazzles us as histrionic Baron Von Fancy. Sarah Hurley is, among other roles, violinist Joseph Joachim, confidant and voice of reason in the story with the repeated mantra “Free but Lonely.” And the versatile Julia LeJeune, who has at least six parts including Dvorak, Gustav the butler and the Schumann children, rounds out the cast.
Eli Blasko designed the spartan but functional set, adorned with more gilded art frames suspended from the ceiling as a backdrop. These convey portals through time and mirrors, which also have mystical connections to the soul and ghosts.
Most of Cassandra Scott’s lighting effects come from the dozen or so miscellaneous brass and gold chandeliers that complement the picture frames. And the period and modern costumes (loved the Ramones T-shirt!) were conceived by Elliott and Lily Knights, who has come back to the stage after almost a decade absence.
“Ghost Variations,” the culmination of Elliott’s six-month residency in Spartanburg, has an intriguing “Angels in America” quality about it. In her play a dying man is suffering from syphilis (an incurable communicable disease at the time) and has hallucinations and visits by the ghost of Ludwig Van Beethoven. In Tony Kushner’s epic, a dying Aids patient meets the ghost of executed spy Ethel Rosenberg. Even the dialogue between Robert and Clara when he first announce his disease could easily be substituted for today’s reality for HIV-infected people who have to put up barriers to intimacy, for their partner’s sake. And though they don’t fly like “Angels in America,” there are angels on stage during Clara’s final monologue, which is fittingly read right from her personal journal.
Again this play is still in workshop mode, but it is quite solid with vibrant characters and a rich historical canon to draw from, especially with regards to the musical score. Elliot has concocted some very funny cohesive segments and I believe the audience laughed in all the right places. The first act seems sound with good beats and pacing and a gorgeous, powerful ending. The second act has many high notes and much to laud but there are a couple odd scene transitions that I am sure will be smoothed out. The only uncomfortable moment was when Beethoven, whose on/off hearing ability is a running joke throughout the play, uses sign-language to spell out the first 6 minutes of notes in Brahms first symphony. I don’t think it was 6 minutes, but it did begin to feel like it.
Thanks to Spartanburg Little Theatre, Hub-bub and Ms. Elliott and the gang for such a rare treat as witnessing the birth of a provocative piece of theater like “Ghost Variations.” We all love “Oklahoma” and “Annie” but this ain’t New York or Chicago, and it’s not every day in Spartanburg that we get the opportunity to see fresh and edgy new works.
Ghost Variations” is presented at 8 p.m. Saturday, June 13 at The Black Box Theatre at the Chapman Cultural Center (enter on left side of main theater building and down the stairs). It is a small theatre so reserve your tickets for “Ghost Variations” at http://www.eventbrite.com/e/ghost-variations- tickets-17172577642. There is a minimum $5 suggested donation at the door.
“Ghost Variations” does contain strong adult content, themes and language and is intended for mature audiences only!
CAROLINACURTAINCALL CODA: To discover more about Robert and Clara Schumann or Brahms, load up your iPhone with Robert Schumann’s “Kinderszenen,” “Album für die Jugend,” “Blumenstück”; Clara Schumann’s “Piano Concerto in A minor,” or Brahms “Symphony No. 1.” Also, check out these films: “Song of Love” (1947) with Paul Henreid as Schumann, Katharine Hepburn as Clara and Robert Walker as Johannes Brahms, “Träumerei” (1944) or “Frühlingssinfonie” (“Spring Symphony”) from 1983.