Like someone experimenting with notes on a keyboard to see how they'll fit into a newly devised musical scheme, composer Richard Peaslee warmed to the idea of trying to describe "The Garden of Earthly Delights," the much-heralded Martha Clark dance/theater/music piece, based on a triptych by 15th-Century painter Hieronymous Bosch, which opens the James A. Doolittle Theatre (formerly the Huntington Hartford) Wednesday.
"I was in on the project pretty much from the beginning," Peaslee said on the telephone from New York, where he's at work on the Andrei Serban version of Beaumarchais' "The Marriage of Figaro." "Martha Clark was one of the founding members of Pilobolus, and then split off to form Crow's Nest. She's a very intuitive, visually oriented artist. We'd met and casually discussed working together; it was Lyn Austin of the Lenox Arts Center who finally brought us together.
"It's been a wonderful collaboration, including Peter Biegel, who wrote a book on the painting and came East to help with the structure, and the three musicians (Eugene Friesen, Steve Silverstein and Bill Ruyle) who were there at the beginning. Everybody contributed imaginative ideas. Martha Clark gave them shape.
"Bosch's triptych is in the Prado in Spain," he continued. "The first panel depicts Adam and Eve in their innocence. The middle is the Garden of Earthly Delights, which shows all these figures--humanity--having a good time. The final panel shows the tortures of being in Hell.
"I think we're trying to convey a complete experience, from innocence to the rot of corruption to the torture and torment of hell, ending in quiet. I think it conveys the feeling of having gone through something and having come out the other side."
At 55, Peaslee is one of those rare and elusive figures in the theater, the modern composer whose work is more than incidental but less than central to the form, like a composer-lyricist for a Broadway musical, for example ("We'd considered doing songs, but abandoned the idea," Peaslee said of "Delights." "Words can be specific. They can ground things.").
But he's not so rare that he isn't in demand. He's worked at a number of American regional theaters, including the Yale Repertory and the Arena Stage, and around the time "Figaro" opens at Circle In the Square, so will another Clark-Peaslee collaboration, called "Vienna." He also won a 1984 Obie for "Delights."
"I started out with a great interest in jazz," said Peaslee, who did undergraduate work at Yale and studied music at Juilliard. "I wanted to be a big band arranger--I played trombone and was never a very good musician. But I had the bad luck to come up when rock was getting big and the bands were dying out. I went to London to work with the big jazz ensemble of William Russo's, the jazz writer who wrote for Stan Kenton. He introduced me to Peter Brook and the Royal Shakespeare Company.
"I didn't care much for writing theater music then. I was more into Cage and Stravinsky. As it turns out, Brook didn't like conventional theater music either, so we collaborated on 'Marat/Sade,' and other works later, including 'Midsummer Night's Dream.' One advantage theater has over the concert hall is that, if you're a 'serious' composer, you're lucky to get your work done at all, and then most of the time it's only a one-shot deal. In the theater, you hear singers and actors do your stuff right away, and you get to hear the finished product night after night."
Into the docket, so to speak, stepped producer and co-director Guy Giarrizzo--who performs those tasks for Eduardo Machado's "Fabiola," which opens Thursday at the Ensemble Studio Theatre--to answer this question: If "Fabiola" is as great as you say it is, why was it crucified by the critics in New York?.
Giarrizzo pleaded Nolo Contendre. "I didn't see the New York production, but I heard it wasn't very good," he said. "We're taking a completely different approach than they did at the Theatre for the New City, which did the play earlier this year. They made Machado do rewrites, which we've rejected--the play is wonderful just the way it is. They played up a homosexual element; we emphasize the family. They had no previews. They weren't ready opening night, when the critics came. Quite frankly, I think they blew it.
" 'Fabiola' is about an upper middle-class Cuban family prior, during, and after the Castro revolution. It shows what they came through. It's a kind of comedy of manners, set in a society that's falling apart. It's classically structured, but it's full of Latin passion. Along with laughter, the audience gets a punch in the stomach. Machado has come out here to see what we're doing. He said that, compared to the New York production, it's like night and day."
Assuming no additional charges are brought forth, such as assaulting an audience, time--the most judicious jury of all--will determine whether Giarrizzo keeps his dramatic license.