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Jason Forbach and Wayne Hobbs
in The Music Teacher
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
The men in Wallace Shawn's works, sometimes portrayed by the author himself, usually have woefully little self-confidence. They're reticent types, spilling their uncertainties in compulsive first-person confessions before an audience as if they wish to compound their diffidence by gathering as many others as possible into the conspiracy against themselves. These men are present with their invisible, flagellating whips in The Fever, The Designated Mourner, and, most famously, in the films My Dinner With André and Vanya on 42nd Street, in which -- with his usual self-deprecation -- Shawn played Anton Chekhov's timorous, resentful protagonist.

The latest in this parade of shuffling self-effacers is Jack Smith, the title character of The Music Teacher, "a play/opera" that boasts abundant measures of sometimes flighty, sometimes confident music by Shawn's brother Allen. Jack is played not by Wallace Shawn but by the tall, furrow-browed Mark Blum. Consciously or unconsciously, this always crafty actor speaks in cadences that anyone familiar with Wallace Shawn's delivery will recognize, and he does a bang-up job in the role.

Smith presents his bona fides as an also-ran by saying, "There are a lot of people in this world about whom you can honestly say that it just doesn't matter if they're alive or dead, and I must say, I happen to be one of those people myself." He goes on to announce that he has taught music for some time but never with as much joy as at the beginning of his career, when he was posted to a small boarding school. He further admits to having chosen a life in which he rarely asserts himself, preferring to forget the more ambitious goals he had as a younger man. He especially remembers his last year at the sheltered institution, when he wrote and appeared in an opera with the alluring students Jane and Jim.

As Jack reminisces, he relives the performance of the opera and its aftermath; he envisions his younger self, young Jane, and young Jim. (These primarily singing roles are usually played by Wayne Hobbs, Sarah Wolfson, and Jason Forbach but at certain performances are played by Jeffrey Picon, Kathryn Skemp, and Ross Benoliel, respectively.) Meanwhile, the older Jane (Kellie Overbey, in a performance that beautifully combines youthfulness with maturity) materializes to ponder the same days and to think about the music teacher whom she not only admired but observed with some precocious insight. Her recollections supplement Jack's and, as the two alternate speeches, they eventually describe Jack's flight from school after the opera and Jane's having followed him to a small hotel in another city. The details of that late night, which won't be revealed here, add up to an explanation for Jack's decision about how he would live his later life. The deciding factor was his sudden awareness of how he was capable of behaving if he gave himself over to impulses that he'd spent years denying.

Marshaling his trademark determination to be completely honest about personal misgivings, Shawn is writing about the tragedy of repression and the fear of letting go. Jack Smith, with his Everyman name, is the portrait of a man who's accepted respectable failure because he dreaded potentially giddy success. But the real strength of The Music Teacher emanates partly from its intense look at the nexus of sexual desire and the creative urge. It recognizes astutely that both can be similarly overwhelming.

Moreover, The Music Teacher -- a collaboration by two brothers who wrote puppet shows together when they were children -- derives its indisputable appeal from being sui generis. Few plays conjure with such gorgeous nostalgia a prep school's autumnal atmosphere. Tom Cairns has not only directed the piece exquisitely, he also designed the evocative set. (Greg Emetaz is responsible for the equally evocative video design.) And what other play stops to present an opera, set in ancient Greece, about two friends who come to no good end when fate decrees that one will steal the affections of the other's wife?

Yet, if there's a problem with this amazing piece, it's the unwarranted length of the opera. It's meant to demonstrate Allen Shawn's abilities -- as well as the clarion voices of Hobbs, Wilson, and Forbach -- and, indeed, his inspired craftsmanship shines through, especially in an opening song and a mock cabaret number sung stunningly by Rebecca Robbins (Elisa Cordova is the alternate). A chamber ensemble, conducted by Timothy Long and featuring pianists Lloyd Arriola and Carol Wong, violinist Whitney La Grange, string bassist Troy Rinker, and Michel Gohler on woodwinds, plays the score enchantingly.

Acted and sung by a troupe of adept and seductive performers, The Music Teacher is a truly wonderful look at the consequences of avoiding the frightening risk that success almost always requires.

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