A decade before he took the role of Capt. Jean-Luc Picard on “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” Patrick Stewart sat in the string section of the London Symphony and had what he remembers as “perhaps the most exciting theatrical experience” of his career.
That was when the British actor appeared in the world premiere of “Every Good Boy Deserves Favour,” the 1977 Tom Stoppard-Andre Previn theatrical-musical hybrid that places a full orchestra on stage to interact with a cast of six. When he wasn’t reciting his speeches--Stewart played a Soviet psychiatrist charged with “curing” political dissidents of their delusions--he “got to sit with the orchestra, under maestro Previn, fiddling away.”
“It’s not something most music lovers get to experience,” Stewart said, “and it’s been firmly in my head ever since.”
Because it requires 70 or more musicians, “EGBDF” is rarely performed and received its only significant Southern California exposure during a four-day run at the Los Angeles Music Center in 1986.
But last year, Stewart said, “I was in the fortunate position of being given a symphony orchestra to play with.” That was the Garden Grove-based Orange County Symphony. Grateful for Stewart’s service as narrator for a 1990 performance of Benjamin Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” officials asked Stewart “if there was anything I wanted to do. I had an answer for them.”
As a result, this weekend Stewart returns to the role he created in two performances of “EGBDF” with the orchestra. The shows also mark his debut as a stage director. Filling out the cast are five fellow “Star Trek: The Next Generation” actors, many of whom have longed to resume the stage careers they interrupted to work on television. Explained Jonathan Frakes, who plays Cmdr. William Riker in the series, “It’s wonderful to do something where we don’t have to wear spacesuits.”
Like many Stoppard plays, “EGBDF” uses a pair of contrasting characters to make its points. Set in a Soviet mental hospital, the work concerns two inmates, assigned to the same cell because they have the same name, Alexander Ivanov. One Ivanov (Frakes) is sane, a dissident sent to the hospital because of his political views. The other (Brent Spiner) is a genuine lunatic who imagines he is the triangle player in a symphony orchestra--and it is this orchestra that the audience sees, and hears, on stage.
“The orchestra isn’t in the pit playing an accompanying role,” said the orchestra’s music director, Edward Peterson. “It’s actually intermingled with the actors. It’s the seventh actor in the play.”
Indeed, Previn’s music and Stoppard’s words are about equally balanced through the 70-minute work. The title itself is a musical reference, the mnemonic given to students to remember the five notes--E-G-B-D-F--on the lines of the treble staff.
“The play is a brilliant trick,” said Stewart. “It’s classic Stoppard writing, and it’s filled with some of the best musical jokes I’ve encountered: ‘I’ve got a violin section which is to violin playing what Heifetz is to water polo,’ ” he says by way of example. “Or, ‘I’ve got a tubercular great-nephew of John Philip Sousa who goes ‘oom’ when he should be going ‘pah.’
“And it’s also a very political piece, dealing with the abuse of psychiatric medicine in the Soviet Union and the broad question of state lying.”
These have been important issues to Stewart, who has long supported the human-rights lobby Amnesty International (which will have tables at the auditorium and will receive a small portion of the concert proceeds).
But with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Stewart said he endeavored to find the implications of performing the work now. He consulted with Previn and Stoppard, and with Peter Reddaway, a professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., who has studied the Soviet psychiatric system. They persuaded him that the issues raised in “EGBDF” remain relevant.
Reddaway said in a telephone interview that thousands of Soviet dissidents had been held since the policy of confining them in mental hospitals began under Nikita S. Khrushchev in the late 1950s. While virtually all political prisoners known to the West had been released during the Gorbachev and post-Soviet periods, Reddaway said some we don’t know about may remain.
“The other problem is that the whole psychiatric system there is still run for the most part by the people who have led the abuse of psychiatry for the past 20 to 30 years, treating sane people as if they were insane, forcibly treating them with extremely unpleasant drugs,” Reddaway said. “Georgy Morozov, who has been at the apex of this terrible system of abuse since 1957, still serves as president of the state agency in charge of psychiatry. Marat Vartanyan, who has been one of the big manipulators of the propaganda side of the system, remains director of the Research Center for Mental Health in Moscow.”
Reddaway said that similar systems of “psychiatric gulags” had been established--and since shut down--in the former Soviet satellites of Romania and East Germany. But a small-scale version of Soviet psychiatry continues in Cuba, he said, where “100 or 200 victims are held” at any given time in mental hospitals.
While “EGBDF” is modeled on the Soviet Union of the 1970s, cast members said that it has lessons for Americans about their own society as well.
“It’s not a play that merely says that things were terrible under a Communist regime in Russia,” said Spiner, whose television role is that of Lt. Cmdr. Data, the galaxy’s only sentient android. “It reflects on any sort of repression of thought and creativity. It reflects on conformity, and enforced conformity is a very present danger in our society.”
As an example, Spiner cited religious groups currently trying to restrict the content of Hollywood movies and television programs.
“Last week, the archbishop decided he would create a new code for decency,” Spiner said, in reference to Cardinal Roger Mahony’s demand for Hollywood to remove what he called “evil” ideas from its product.
“If that gets enforced, what does that do the cultural spirit? What does that do to the individual spirit? How is that different from putting people in a prison?” Spiner said. “It’s heavy stuff.”
But although the play deals with provocative worldly issues and involves unusual stagecraft, orchestra officials said most concert-goers are coming to Garden Grove for reasons that are even more, well, universal:
“It’s ‘Star Trek,’ ” said Yaakov Dvir-Djerassi, the orchestra manager who has sold tickets to members of several fan clubs devoted to the television show and its stars. “They call themselves ‘Trekkers,’ and they’re coming from all over the country, from Canada, England and Australia,” he said.
A typical Trekker might be Vanita Shelton, 37, a Santa Rosa woman whose trade is assembling computer circuit boards.
A vice president of the Fans of Patrick Stewart club and member of the Official “Star Trek” Fan Club, Shelton, has collected ‘Star Trek’ trading cards, written songs celebrating Stewart and Spiner and traveled thousands of miles to see Stewart in person, most recently to New York in December where the actor was presenting his one-man version of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” She even joined Amnesty International because “it’s the (cause) Patrick Stewart told us to support.”
This weekend, Shelton will journey 500 miles from her Sonoma County home and pay $75 to see Stewart & Co. perform in a play by a writer she had never heard of.
Shelton explained her attraction to the program and its stars this way: “I think ‘Star Trek’ represents the better part of humanity.”
Like many of his fellow cast members, Stewart has endeavored to create an identity outside the peculiar world of “Star Trek” and its fans. “I’ve worked at making sure that I keep the rest of my career as alive as possible.” As far as “EGBDF” goes, “I emphasize there is nothing ‘Star Trek’ about it,” Stewart said.
Nonetheless, he did make an observation that might be comforting to fans looking to link Stewart’s 24th-Century adventures with his concerns about more terrestrial issues.
“I would say that the ideals of Amnesty International, and those expressed in this play, fit in very appropriately with the ‘Prime Directive'--the Federation mandate to defend the rights of individuals in whatever galaxy they may live.”
“Every Good Boy Deserves Favour” and other works will be presented by the Orange County Symphony on Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m. at the Don Wash Auditorium, 11271 Stanford Ave., Garden Grove. Tickets: SOLD OUT. Information: (714) 534-1103.