By Quinn Rigg
Hershey Felder’s Our Great Tchaikovsky powerfully defies expectations, providing a heartbreakingly candid, musically-motivated monologue/concert of one of Russia’s and indeed the world’s greatest composers: Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
Under the smart, effectively calculated direction of Trevor Hay, Felder leaves the stage with no lofty ambition unsatisfied; not only does he organically and authentically express the humanizing wants, fears and imagined musings of a figure ascribed into historical legend, but Felder simultaneously plays the piano with unparalleled power, poise and musical panache.
Written and performed by Felder and presented by Eighty-Eight Entertainment, Our Great Tchaikovsky is a one-man biopic reflection of Tchaikovsky’s life and legacy through the context of his fervent artistic hunger and his deeply private homosexuality. The compelling creativity of this concept is backed by extensive research and a dialectically immersive script—in part assisted by the historical and biographical research efforts of Meghan Maiya.
This show continues Felder’s long-running series of one-man shows focusing on historically-permanent composers: The Composers Sonata. Tchaikovsky is a profoundly humanizing, heart-wrenching, symphonically harmonious extension of the series. A synopsis of the plot may be found here.
Well-researched and rigorously practiced, Felder’s dialectal specificities as Tchaikovsky are accurate and increasingly immersive—a clarity of character expounded upon through engaged physicality and articulate gestures. The multilayered complexity of Felder’s performance is nothing short of a tour de force when taking into further account Tchaikovsky’s humorous impersonations of friends, family, and other historical figures, all the while flipping between the flamboyant Russian of the nineteenth century to Felder himself in the present day: there truly is nothing that this artist cannot do.
Indeed, Felder’s seamlessly metamorphic transitions to the lonely composer and back again are not only impressive, but necessary to informing the stories and secrets that Tchaikovsky reveals. The tragedy and triumph of his legacy in the present further entices the drama of Tchaikovsky’s life in the past: his struggles, his darkest fears, his unending sorrow and his artistic victories. The artist asides do well to revitalize audience focus and transition between chronological periods of Tchaikovsky’s life; additionally, the asides provide a platform for Felder to address the historical and cultural parallels between society’s treatment of homosexuality in the nineteenth century and its treatment of the topic today.
The show emphasizes the compelling and hidden issue of Tchaikovsky’s deeply closeted sexuality—something that Tchaikovsky’s motherland desperately did try (and continually attempts) to deny. In an expository aside, Felder himself even muses on the profound irony of being called by Russian producers to create and perform this work on Tchaikovsky in Moscow—the capital of a country that refuses to accept the homosexual identity of the hero they idolize.
Our Great Tchaikovsky is just as much a reflection on a great artist as it is a social commentary—an indictment of societies that ignorantly refuse to accept the existence, experience or validity of homosexuality. The exploration and demonstration of hiding something as fundamental and vital as sexual identity is immensely powerful, and the subject is approached with compassion and sensitivity throughout the piece.
Lighting design by Christopher Ash helps create a certain claustrophobic closeness with Felder and his historical muse, despite the large space of the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theater. The soft yellows and subtle shifts to cooler blues and whites throughout the piece seamlessly heighten the progression of audiences’ journeys with Tchaikovsky. And just the same, Ash’s lighting cues expand the horizon of patrons’ eyes and hearts as Tchaikovsky’s music builds a world of sound within the theater space—before even noticing the journey taken, sojourners are gently placed back into the dimly-lit, antiquated room within which a troubled artist relates the pain of his loneliness to an audience that cannot talk to him, an audience that cannot change the tragedy that is his past. Through the creativity and atmospheric intimacy of Ash’s lighting and Felder’s own scenic design, audiences empathize with the nurturing comfort and illuminating truth of music in reverence to, and in spite of unbearable existential pain. Felder has an innate gift (or well-nurtured aptitude) for creating deceptively comfortable intimacy with an audience.
Through the sonorous sincerity of his heart, as well as the dynamic dexterity of his own virtuosic musicianship, Felder expertly utilizes Tchaikovsky’s emotionally-expansive music to create dramatic landscapes within which the composer’s life unfurls. Flawless sound design by Erik Carstensen supports the magnitude of this musical experience with unseen nuance and much-heard perfection. This play expertly marries music to drama; deliberate musical beat shifts illustratively motivate pensive reflections and evocative revelations. Felder’s time behind the piano is utterly enthralling, as patrons are enveloped in the expansive soundscape of the artist’s mind, just as they are compelled by the sincerity of his voice.
Unlike the powerfully subdued finale of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth (and final) Symphony, and unlike the haunting emotional desolation patrons are left with at this play’s conclusion, this theatrical experience shall not soon fade from the thoughts and hearts of any theatregoer fortunate enough to witness this beautifully immersive artistic experience.
With internationally-renowned talent and a production crew of unparalleled facility, Our Great Tchaikovsky is an intimate and intriguing theatrical journey that is unlikely to be replicated anywhere—or anywhen, for that matter—in this city, or any other.
See our interview with Felder here.
“Our Great Tchaikovsky” is a limited engagement playing through May 13th at the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St. More information and tickets may be found here.