- Echo After Echo by Amy Rose Capetta, Candlewick Press, 432 pages. $17.99.
It's difficult to read Amy Rose Capetta's third young-adult novel, published last month, without being reminded of the scandals currently rocking Hollywood. Echo After Echo is many things — a touching lesbian romance, a murder mystery, a coming-of-age tale and a feat of fleet prose. Not least, though, it's a cutting study of the corrosive effects of power abuses in the intimate realm of the theater.
Early on, readers might mistake the book for a story of adolescent wish fulfillment. One minute, 18-year-old protagonist Zara Evans is in high school. The next, she's starring in a prominent New York production of her favorite Greek tragedy, Echo and Ariston, opposite a movie heartthrob and under the tutelage of a revered director.
But Capetta quickly steers her story in a darker direction. Before rehearsals can begin, the lighting designer takes a fatal plunge from the catwalk. A second death in the theater occasions talk of a "curse."
Meanwhile, Zara struggles to give director Leopold Henneman the level of commitment he demands, knowing the theater is full of young women eager to take her place. Warned against "distractions," she hides her crush on assistant lighting designer Eliza "Eli" Vasquez. Once their burgeoning romance gets past its awkward phase, the only real impediment is Leopold's obsessive need to control his star.
In passages like this one, Capetta puts her finger on how insidiously a powerful and respected figure in the arts can manipulate a young hopeful:
[Zara] can see it, how he [Leopold] flicks from bored to furious, how he calls her brilliant and then breaks her down. He keeps changing the story so she won't know what to believe — except for him.
Unusually for a YA novel, Echo After Echo is told from a wide range of perspectives, shifting focus with each chapter. So, in addition to seeing the central love story from both sides, we get various viewpoints on Leopold's behavior, including his own.
While he delights in humiliating his actors and sometimes actively sabotages their careers, this celebrity director isn't motivated by sexual gratification. Rather, he sees himself as being "in the business of perfection," the price of which may be "Discomfort. Pressure. A touch of madness." That's cold comfort to those living under the thumb of this "art monster," as one of the actors dubs Leopold.
It's no surprise to learn that Capetta, a Vermont resident who holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, studied at New York's Stella Adler Studio of Acting as a teenager. Readers with backstage experience will appreciate her expertise — and may recognize Leopold's type and the cultish admiration he inspires.
While Capetta spotlights an ugly side of the theater, she also celebrates the thrill of making a great production happen, whether onstage or behind the scenes. "Once you start doing theater," reflects Eli, "it's impossible to stop ... There's this empty, echoing space inside you that absolutely needs to be filled with late-night rehearsals and sweat and motion and lights and people."
Writing in third-person present tense, Capetta gives her story the fluidity of a dream, revealing her characters to us in neat, quasi-epigrammatic descriptions. The doomed lighting designer "is lighting god and first-grader and nothing in between." The movie star "has nightmares about reality TV — the shark-infested waters that famous people are tossed into when everyone else is done with them."
In an author's note, Capetta says the novel's "secret working title" was No More Tragic Queers, referencing an all-too-common theatrical and literary trope. She makes good on that implied promise, confining doomed romance to the play in which Zara performs.
If there's a character who does seem primed for a classical tragic downfall, it's Leopold. But should we feel terror, pity or both? An actor sums up the problem Leopold poses: "We don't think we're supposed to stop brilliant men. We think we're supposed to worship them. We all play our roles so well." When an undeniably brilliant artist repeatedly crosses the line of civilized behavior, how long can his colleagues continue to genuflect? In Capetta's fictional theater, presumption gets its final curtain call.