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Long before anyone blamed Marilyn Manson, Metallica or even the Beatles for inciting violence, there was … Ludwig van Beethoven.
The composer's Violin Sonata No. 9 nicknamed the "Kreutzer" Sonata in honor of a violinist Beethoven admired is a pivotal element in Leo Tolstoy's novella "The Kreutzer Sonata," whose protagonist explains how the music drove him to murder his wife in a fit of jealous rage. The woman, a pianist, had been rehearsing the piece with a male violinist, and her husband became convinced the two were having an affair.
Plan-B Theatre Company and the NOVA Chamber Music Series have teamed up to present Utah playwright Eric Samuelsen's one-act adaptation of "The Kreutzer Sonata." Robert Scott Smith will portray the protagonist, Pozdnyshev; violinist Kathryn Eberle and pianist Jason Hardink will act as what Smith called "a conduit to the story," performing Beethoven's music as figures in the murderer's memory.
"As he conjures up the music and memory of us performing and rehearsing, we're almost glass figurines that he can't touch," Hardink explained.
Plan-B producing director Jerry Rapier said that when Hardink, who is NOVA's artistic director, proposed the project, he stipulated that he and Eberle wouldn't have lines. But Rapier wants to dispel any notion that their role is to provide background music.
"Kathryn and Jason are not accompanying Scott," he said. "It's one actor, but it's a three-person show. It wouldn't be successful without any one of the three of them."
Samuelsen said the audience will hear about 75 percent of the sonata and "0.5 percent" of the hundred-page novella. Sometimes Smith will speak over the musicians; at other times he'll cut them off. "Occasionally you'll hear little snippets, but usually it's longer excerpts," Hardink said. "The wilder music from the third movement underscores him chasing his wife with a knife. It's not like a film score, but it's driving this entire time."
Plan-B has produced many of Samuelsen's plays, as well as his translations of two plays by Ibsen. Rapier said Samuelsen's skill as an adapter is especially evident in "Kreutzer Sonata."
"I challenge anyone to identify where Eric ends and Tolstoy begins," he said. "It's so seamless, you would never know."
Because he was writing with Eberle and Hardink in mind, Samuelsen switched the roles of pianist and violinist. Rapier believes the change raises the dramatic stakes. It isn't that the violin music is more important, he said the parts are equally demanding but the violinist stands out front and is more physically demonstrative. "It adds more danger, more possibility that maybe there's something to what [Pozdnyshev] is saying."
The music may be the trigger, but Beethoven isn't entirely to blame.
"Pozdnyshev is so overcome with jealousy not specifically because he thinks she is unfaithful in a romantic or sexual sense, but because she finds another thing in her life that is not focused on him," Samuelsen explained. "Because of that act of rebellion, he decides, in his sick, twisted way, that she needs to pay.
"Really, for the piece to work, you have to to a very small extent hear the 'Kreutzer' the way Pozdnyshev hears it … without the aesthetic distance we usually bring to a night of chamber music," the playwright added. "For this guy, that music is dangerous. It's seductive in a way he had not ever experienced before."
Eberle has played the "Kreutzer" Sonata many times, from her graduate recital at the University of Southern California to last season's NOVA Gallery Series performance with Hardink. "My feelings [about the piece] have and haven't changed," she said. "The sonata itself stands alone as a masterpiece. But then you put Tolstoy on top of that, and then Eric Samuelsen's amazing, amazing writing on top of that, and I do think I play it in a slightly different way. Any time you have a story you associate with your playing, for me, I feel like my artistic expression is heightened."
Smith said the music speaks volumes, making his job as an actor all the easier. "It's more than a concert and deeper than a piece of theater," he said.
The production is scheduled around Hardink's and Eberle's day jobs in the Utah Symphony; the eight performances take place Sunday and Monday nights. But the musicians have recorded the sonata for Smith to use in his Nov. 4 performance at the United Solo Theater Festival in New York.
Plan-B Theatre Company and the NOVA Chamber Music Series present "The Kreutzer Sonata."
When • Sundays and Mondays at 7 p.m., Oct. 18 through Nov. 9
Where • Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $20; planbtheatre.org