THE HELIOTROPE Bouquet By Scott Joplin and Louis Chauvin," first production in Center Stage's newly dedicated Head Theater, is a visual feast more than it is a dramatic or thematic piece.
While the organization couldn't have chosen a more suitable inaugural presentation for the theater, the new play is really little more than an impression, a dream-like remembrance of the only time these two ragtime composers met in collaboration.
The show is, however, quite interesting, and it doesn't hurt to know, going in, that it runs no more than one hour and 20 minutes without intermission. Knowing that author Eric Overmyer doesn't intend to go on any longer than he needs will keep you from wondering how he is going to continue to sustain this very thin narrative. As is, he has his players repeat and repeat certain lines. There is, however, method in his approach.
Joplin and Chauvin knew each other when both were playing the "sporting houses" in the South. Both were ragtime men, composers of that particular kind of music. Joplin would be largely forgotten until 1973, when "The Sting" gave his work new and lasting attention. Chauvin's work is less familiar.
Chauvin lived to be 26. He may or may not have died of syphilis. Joplin would live to be 49. The only time these two men collaborated was on the title song, and Chauvin may have done the most with it.
"The Heliotrope Bouquet," however, is not only concerned with musical collaboration. It also tells us a little about both men. According to the script, Joplin married twice, and when his child by his second wife died, the second marriage ended.
The script also remembers a ragtime competition as it is recalled by several witnesses, so we don't really know what happened. We only know that we have several different versions of that event. This is "Roshomon" again, and there is nothing wrong with that.
Actually, there is nothing really wrong with the play, if you're willing to settle for poetry and beauty. The show is particularly strong on the second, beginning with the women. You never saw so many lovely young women on one stage, and all move with grace and Grecian flow.
The women, first seen as girls in a sporting house, serve as a kind of Greek chorus, particularly at the start of the play, a dream sequence. It's good to know this, too. This is one instance in which advance knowledge of a production is a decided advantage.
Monti Sharp is Joplin, Victor Mack is Chauvin, and Ellen Bethea, Lilda Cavell, Denise Diggs, Essene Torres and Essene R are the women who move through the lives of Joplin and Chauvin. Essene R plays Joplin's second wife. The others play a variety of roles. All go about their assignments with grace and charm. Wil Love is Stark, the white music publisher who promises to read Joplin's opera, "Treemonisha," but never does.
Departing artistic director Stan Wojewodski Jr. (he'll direct one more production this season) did the direction, one of his more impressive achievements. Under his guidance, "The Heliotrope Bouquet" is almost musical, something that is frequently characteristic of Overmyer's work. As was the case with some of his previous pieces, "The Heliotrope Bouquet" almost cries out for musical numbers, preferably small.
Of course, there is some music, recorded rag that is heard as the players pretend to work the piano that is the centerpiece of this show. It could use much more of this.
And now, the new playing area. It is almost stunning. The new fourth-level theater, approachable by elevator or stairs, can be arranged to seat from 100 to 350 spectators, and the two-deck stands, "towers" that frame the sides of the playing area, may be moved about.
The Head Theater may be used in the round, proscenium or three-quarter. In this instance, it is three-quarter and uses a three-quarter curtain that rises and descends, balloon style. All this, plus the circular stairway that rises from floor to loft to the rear, give the theater and this particular production distinction.
Taken together, theater and show, this Center Stage offering is worth attention. Just keep in mind that "Heliotrope Bouquet" is very special, a one-act exercise in poetry and (not enough) music. It will remain at the Head Theater through April 7.
"The Heliotrope Bouquet by Scott Joplin and Louis Chauvin"
** A dream-like remembrance of the single collaboration between two ragtime composers
CAST: Ellen Bethea, L. Peter Callender, Linda Cavell, Denise Diggs, Dion Graham, Wil Love, Victor Mack, Essene R, Monti Sharp, Jeffery V. Thompson, Gina Torres
DIRECTOR: Stan Wojewodski Jr.
RUNNING TIME: Eighty minutes with no intermission