KPBS AIRDATE: AUGUST 19,1991
It’s almost as if we’re watching “The Heliotrope Bouquet by Scott Joplin and Louis Chauvin” through an opium haze. But ragtime wizard Joplin wasn’t as much into mind-bending drugs as his contemporary Chauvin. At the time we meet him, however, in 1917, Joplin is sliding downward from syphilis, and his mind is fuzzy with fever, as he flashes back on important places, people and moments in his life.
Scenes don’t so much change as ooze into each other, as Joplin recalls his days in the “sportin’ houses” of St. Louis and New Orleans, the “cuttin’ contests” where one pianist tries to outdo the other, his first wife and their dead infant, his wild days, his white publisher, and his sad acknowledgment that Chauvin was really a more brilliant musician than he.
But Chauvin couldn’t read music — or even his name — and although he “played like magic,” he lived only for women and opium. “The rags flow through my fingers,” he said. “I don’t need to write them down.”
But one rag, one slow-drag two-step called “The Heliotrope Bouquet,” was written down — by co-composer Scott Joplin — and it’s the only surviving work of the forgotten Chauvin, who died of syphilis at age 26.
It’s not quite the Salieri-Mozart story, of mediocrity outliving genius. In fact, there isn’t much of a story at all. But pieces of an era waft by us in slow-motion, and a heady, dreamy, surreal set of images unfolds before us, transporting us away for 80 mystical minutes.
In their real lives, Joplin was clearly the go-getter and self-promoter. Chauvin left everything to chance. “Mr. Cautious Joplin” Chauvin called him, “always with one eye on the future.” Ultimately, thanks to the 1973 movie, “The Sting,” Joplin found a future.
This play’s future is less certain, but one can understand the support of the AT&T New Plays for the Nineties Project, which gave $50,000 grants to the La Jolla Playhouse and its co-producer, Baltimore’s Center Stage.
It’s a highly innovative and creative piece, crafted rhythmically and poetically by playwright Eric Overmyer, and lovingly, imagistically directed by his former Baltimore colleague, Stan Wojewodski, with slow, sensual choreography by Donald Byrd.
The cast is impressive, with powerful performances put in by John Cothran, Jr. as a distraught, distressed Joplin, and Victor Mack as a toothy, engaging, and cynical Chauvin. The sportin’ women are better individually than in their choral speaking, but they look irresistible in Catherine Zuber’s sultry costumes. Judyann Elder stands out as Joplin’s first and second wives, switching back and forth between the two with effortless grace. Christopher Barreca backs the piece with a stark black, windowed set, with an evocative, winding staircase spiraling down to center-stage, just beyond the reach of a solitary upright piano, which sometimes emits luscious rags pre-recorded by William Ransom.
Everything works in delicious service of the gossamer whole, one man’s self-examination — reliving, reworking and regretting some of his past. Very potent stuff, but as diaphanous as the purple scrim curtain that surrounds it. Don’t search too hard for heavy meaning and message. Just let the look and feel and sound of “”The Heliotrope Bouquet'” wash over you.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1991 Patté Productions Inc.