By TOMMY SMITH  at washington ensemble theatre


“I was just walking down 9th avenue thinking about the images of the show.  I think this is the same experience for everyone who sees it–I feel the piece consumes the viewer.  Tony’s cackle, Brandon’s top-lit smirk, the hanging, Antonina standing on the brink of the fog at the end, Gesualdo’s whipping, Chris’ puffy chest and his head-butts, the look on Hannah’s face at “I can be entertaining” — all these swirled in my head, and I thought that this is probably the most successful production of my work I’ve seen yet.  Your staging is fearless — you throw the viewer in the water and make them gasp for air.  Every night I saw it I thought, yes yes Yes!”


Excerpt from Preview Article (Brendan Kiley – The Stranger)

Sextet will be directed by Roger Benington, who breathed gut-clenching life into Crave and God’s Ear at WET.

WET’s Sextet Restored my Faith in Theatre … It’s the Best Play Running in Seattle Right Now. (Michael Strangeways)

You’ll have to excuse me, but I’m a bit burnt out. Since September 9th, I’ve seen sixteen stage productions, (yeah, I gasped just now, writing that) and while none of them have been BAD, the majority of them have been a bit bland and middle of the road. I’ve been jonesin’ for some meaty, juicy theater with artistic merit and I’ve been sorely disappointed for awhile and starting to despair that it just wasn’t meant to be. I’m very, very, very pleased to report that my dry spell has ended. The always interesting, always innovative, always challenging Washington Ensemble Theatre made me a very happy camper last Friday night at the opening of their new production, Sextet. The world premiere of Tommy Smith’s new play is a cause for celebration. Sextet is a intricate puzzle box of a play, a dazzling choreographed, immaculately designed, and passionately acted new work of art. Mr Smith has created a mesmerizing roundelay of three inter cutting stories, meticulously constructed and layered with pathos and humor and heartache and artistic integrity. At a taut 80 minutes, I only wish it had been longer…I wasn’t ready to leave the world that WET had created and I walked home in a bit of swoon. Like a passionate kiss, experiencing a terrific production of an exciting new play can leave you heady with the excitement of new found love.

Yes, I really liked it.

Sextet is a play about three famous composers and their complicated love/sex lives. Peter Tchaikovsky, Arnold Schoenberg and Carlo Gesualdo all achieved fame for their music, each in his own era, but have little else in common save their tendency to get involved in tragic love triangles. Tchaikovsky struggled with his homosexuality, married a much younger woman but had relationships with other men, including his own (adult) nephew. The twentieth century composer, Arnold Schoenberg lost his wife Matilde to a painter but was persuaded to return to the composer for the sake of the children; the painter subsequently committed suicide. And, the case of  Carlo Gesualdo was the most shocking and violent of all; in 1590 the famed madrigal composer murdered his wife and her lover after catching the couple in the act. Gesualdo was a nobleman and was not prosecuted; he remarried and lived another 23 years.

Unlike many playwrights, Tommy Smith is not afraid to place multiple characters on stage at the same time, from different timelines and interweave complicated narratives. Characters in the Tchaikovsky plotline will mimic the words and actions of characters in the Schoenberg and Gesualdo plotlines, or even contrast with the the other stories. At times, all nine actors are on stage and both the writing and the direction is assured enough to guarantee that the audience is able to focus on the appropriate characters and plots at the appropriate time, or encompass all the action on the stage when necessary. It all works due to the strong plotting and dialogue by Mr Smith and the carefully detailed direction of Roger Benington. Every movement is carefully but artistically planned out and never feels forced or artificial and the work frequently feels like a choreographed ballet of passionate moments and moods. It is probably the strongest and bravest job of directing I’ve seen on a Seattle stage and a credit to Mr Benington.

Mr Benington and the designers are also responsible for the unique setting  of the play. The curtain opens to reveal a simple three walled set of classically paneled walls with three hidden doors in the backstage wall. But the most striking thing about this simple setting is the fact that it sits in three inch pool of water and the actors play the entire show with wet feet, and eventually wet bodies as the mood intensifies. It’s a bit shocking at first and maybe a little distracting, (I kept thinking of the poor actors getting cold and wet…the unpleasant sensation of being perpetually damp and clammy.) But the mood of the show is enhanced by the SOUNDS generated by the splashing of the actors as they move through the water and the beautiful wavering light images created by the light bouncing and reflecting off the water, gently shimmering on the walls of the set. It created a mood and a sensation of being in a dreamworld of water and light and pain and lust and agony and ecstasy. The design and execution of the set, lighting, sound and costumes, all in a careful greyish/blue color scheme is haunting, beautiful and artistry of the highest calibre and credit must be given to the very professional talents of Andrea Bryn Bush, (set); Andrew D. Smith, (lights); Tito Ramsey and Skylar Burger, (sound); Pete Rush, (costumes) and Clare Strasser, (props). Amazing award worthy work from the entire team and staff.

WET is largely an actor’s ensemble and the actors on stage for “Sextet” represented the company at its best. All gave powerful, intuitive performances and each had their moments to shine on stage. In the three “lead” roles, (though, in reality, this is very much an ensemble piece; every character is relatively equal in importance) , John Abramson as Tchaikovsky, Brandon J. Simmons as Schoenberg and Chris Macdonald as Gesauldo give impassioned but centered performances as the men in the center of the three love triangles, Abramson shining as the tortured closeted Russian, Simmons coolly detached and icy as the most “modern” of the three, and Macdonald a very appealing and sexy, but alternately cruel and despairing Italian murderer. They were equally matched by the three women in their lives: WET ensemble member Hannah Victoria Franklin as the cuckolding wife of the Italian, statuesquely regal and a bit cruel in her infidelity; Heather Persinger as the middle class and slightly frumpy wife of Schoenberg, vaguely committed to her indiscretions; and Samantha Leeds as the baby voiced and petulantly deluded “beard” to the tormented Tchaikovsky. And while the focus of the play centers on the celebrity composers, the three “other” men in the triangles are also vital components in the story and James James, Steven Ackley and Tony Palmer were powerful support as the men behind the scenes who propel the three stories. All nine actors give detailed but impassioned performances and all must be commended for the quality of the work AND for the difficult conditions of acting in a pool of water!

Who’s this play for? Everyone who enjoys passionate, original and artistic theater. Classical music lovers. Anyone who craves brave, original theater. It’s a must see theater event.

My Wife Is Not Well (Jen Graves -The Stranger)

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.


New Play Explores Link Between Misery and Art (Misha Berson – Seattle Times)

Sextet opens with an overture of pitch-blackness, and the sound of dissonant strings. When the lights go up, it becomes a fugue.

This world premiere play at Washington Ensemble Theatre by gifted Seattle native Tommy Smith dives into the murky personal lives of three famed composers — Arnold Schoenberg, Peter Tchaikovsky and the Renaissance-era Prince Carlo Gesualdo.

The contrapuntal dialogue, parallel rhythms and visual dynamics of this tone poem are Sextet’s most musical aspects, in sync with the quoted passages of the composers’ works.

These aspects of the piece are far more intriguing in Roger Benington’s well-orchestrated mounting than Smith’s attempts to conflate artistic inspiration with sexually fueled marital discord.

Embellishing history with speculation, Smith juxtaposes three sexual triangles that end badly, to say the least, and at times are reduced to a kinky soap opera.

Gesualdo (Chris Macdonald) did indeed murder his unfaithful wife, Donna Maria (Hannah Victoria Franklin), and her lover, Duke Fabrizio (James James). (It’s uncertain whether the Prince was also, as suggested, an S&M fan.)

Many scholars concur the troubled Tchaikovsky was a closeted gay man, who had a disastrous marriage with an unstable student, Antonina (Samantha Leeds). Did he have a love affair, while fatally ill, with his nephew Bob (Steven Ackley)? Maybe, or not.

Yes, avant-garde Austrian music pioneer Schoenberg (Brandon J. Simmons) had a wife, Mathilde (Heather Persinger), who left him for her lover, painter Richard Gerstl (Tony Palmer). And the latter hanged himself when she went back to Schoenberg.

Playwrights are allowed license. But what does it prove that each of these artists conceived major works in the midst of personal turmoil? They also created important compositions in less turbulent times, and the equation that misery abets genius is a familiar, facile one.

At times “Sextet” seems to use these biographies as an excuse for graphic erotic writhing, groping and splashing. (On Andrea Bryn Bush’s set, the actors slosh about on a stage covered with water.)

But even if there’s no profound take-away here, “Sextet” is an accomplished aesthetic foray in other senses. Smith’s juxtaposition of three encounters simultaneously in his score of a script is impressive. And his language is frequently poetic, charged and supple.

Bush’s design and the lighting by Andrew D. Smith instill a mysterious and hallucinatory air one moment, a harsh and stark tone a beat later. And the cast, if at times overdoing the grim intensity, enact Benington’s intricate staging with precision.

Smith and Benington have concocted a frequently arresting theatrical opus here. If only it was more insightful and illuminating, on a human scale.


Splashy Sextet a Fantastic Live-Art Concept (Miryam Gordon -Seattle Gay Times)

This world-premiere piece at Washington Ensemble Theatre (more familiarly known as ‘WET’) is one of the edgiest and most provocative theater pieces I’ve seen in a long time. The biggest reason for this is actually the set, by Andrea Bryn Bush, a current nominee for a Gregory Award in Scenic Design. She created a paneled room with about two inches of water enclosed in a room-sized ‘pan,’ so the actors are constantly moving in water. (Those who sit in the front row, be aware that you might get a bit sprinkled on, though it’s unintentional.)

Director Roger Benington embraces the set, making the actors ignore the water altogether while having them sit and lie in it, as called for in the script. The sound of moving water is constant. That organic sound adds to the soundscape (designed by Skylar Burger), which is classical in nature, since the play itself is about classical music composers and their love lives. Playwright Tommy Smith describes that he found a connection between their lousy love lives and their development of areas of music that made them famous. Schoenberg found a ’12-tone technique,’ Gesualdo developed a ‘chromatism,’ and Tchaikovsky developed his emotional expression in his ‘Sixth Symphony.’

Set simultaneously in Austria, Italy, and Russia, the play exhibits the trio of musicians and their triangulated lives with a partner and another lover. Schoenberg (Brandon J. Simmons) had a wife (Heather Persinger) who fooled around with a painter (Tony Palmer); Gesualdo (Chris Macdonald) had a wife (Hannah Victoria Franklin) who fooled around with another nobleman (James James); Tchaikovsky (John Abramson) married a young woman who loved him (Samantha Leeds), but actually loved and lived with his nephew (Steven Ackley).

The actors speak simultaneous lines, which sometimes gives an odd echo effect and also mimics a choral composition (again adding to the classical music themes). Some of the overlapping dialogue, combined with splashing water, can be obscured. The basic stories are pretty clear, but the poetry of the words may well be missed. However, the urgency of sex – via simulated intercourse and oral sex, a little nudity, and wet garments – is loud and clear.

The characters are not in the same century, much less the same city, so they interact only with their own trio. However, so much is going on that you may not learn much about either their art or their lives. Still, as a movement piece, a fantastic live-art concept, an aural treat, and a conceptual wonder, it’s an evening to remember.

In fact, the women in the piece float to the top in some of the most provocative moments. Their lack of choices and feeble attempts to insert some mastery of themselves into their lives, albeit with lovers, makes for the most emotional connections to the audience. Leeds, who plays the young woman married to a closeted homosexual, is the most sorrowful and trapped of all.

This is nowhere near traditional theater, so those who have been asking for, wishing for, or craving something ‘different’ should run, not walk, to get their tickets. It is non-linear, incomplete (as storytelling), complicated, and visually provocative. It is not meant to be a lovely evening, nor is it ‘feel-good’ theatre, and it embraces this challenge. Whatever you end up thinking about it, it’s likely that you’ll end up pondering it, or some aspect of it, for days to come, or more.