If there were such a genre as ragtime theater, it would probably look a lot like Eric Overmyer's "The Heliotrope Bouquet by Scott Joplin & Louis Chauvin," which is receiving its world premiere in Center Stage's new Head Theater.
What Mr. Overmyer has done is the tricky task of translating one art form into another. Specifically, he has taken a collaborative composition, "The Heliotrope Bouquet," by Joplin and his little-known contemporary, Louis Chauvin, and sought out the equivalent words and images for the notes and music.
The result is essentially a mood piece, an evocative reverie, structured in a series of overlapping flashbacks dreamt by Joplin at the end of his life. The 80-minute, intermission-less play is, as one character puts it, "a dream of ragtime rapture. Just a phrase."
Like most musical compositions, it feels more lyrical than dramatic. And those very qualities show off the poetic aspects of Center Stage's new upstairs theater.
Set designer Christopher Barreca and lighting designer Richard Pilbrow make the Head Theater's spaciousness seem as vast as a dream (there's even a heaven-bound spiral staircase). And the theater's juxtaposition of state-of-the-art technology in a 19th century structure forms a near-perfect metaphor for Mr. Overmyer's 1991 reflection on a turn-of-the-century style of music.
Many of the images that the playwright and director Stan Wojewodski Jr. have conjured up are as ethereal as music and as mysterious as Chauvin himself -- a natural, but illiterate, musical genius whose only extant work is the collaborative "Heliotrope Bouquet."
Although the keyboard of the onstage piano is soundless, the music played on it echoes throughout the theater in similar fashion to the celestial dictation in "Amadeus." In one scene, various "piano professors" compete in a ragtime contest in a St. Louis cafe. When one draws a handkerchief across the silent keyboard, we hear a glissando; when another twirls a bowler hat over the keys, the result is a sprightly trill.
Actors Monti Sharp and Victor Mack ably demonstrate the opposing temperaments of Joplin and Chauvin, the former a ganglion of worry, the latter cocky, youthful and fun-loving. And Essene R is a warm, nurturing presence in the multiple roles of several significant women in Joplin's life.
"The Heliotrope Bouquet" frequently seems as evanescent as memory -- or melody. But it also whets your appetite for the future possibilities of the Head Theater, a performing space whose flexibility, appropriately, appears almost as limitless as musical improvisation.
"The Heliotrope Bouquet" continues at Center Stage through April 7; call 332-0033.