Many plays by Tom Stoppard are victims of the author’s cleverness. They’re sharp, cutting, incisive and absolutely enjoyable, but often the audience is left afterward to wonder exactly what it was that had just been enjoyed. And just what, in between the cleverness and precision of language, was the play (that had just been greatly enjoyed) about? Artist Descending a Staircase is such a case in point, but thanks to some sharp direction by John Hurley, and some extraordinary performances, the Boomerang Theatre Company’s production nearly added up to the sum of its parts.
Artist Descending is part puzzle, part mystery, part romance, part comedy, and it has much in common with the Duchamp painting the title is a play on (www.philamuseum.org/collections/modern_contemporary/1950-134-59.shtml). Like the painting, the play barely stands still, shifting from its present (1972) to 1914, 1920, 1922 – years that bracket World War I. But the war is a sideline, as is art -- the what/why/how of painting, sculpture, and sound collages. The play isn’t even about the fatal accident at the center of the plot. It could as well have been set in an office, but then there wouldn’t be all that bitchy arty banter, jibes and insults between people who think the sun rises and sets around their creations. Ah, artists; ah, playwrights!
Three artists, one dead at the bottom of the staircase. All are in love with themselves, but even more with the sound of their own voices. And recriminations about Sophie, the woman who figured in their lives 50 years ago as subject, muse, and unwitting divider. Thank heaven for flashbacks, and thank heaven for the glorious Mary Murphy as Sophie. The three artists, played in the “present” by Tom Knutson, Ed Schultz, and Ronald Cohen, don’t really have that much to do or be until the flashback scenes reveal who they are, and the defining events of their lives are shown. When that happens, though, finally the audience can start to make sense of what’s been talked about -- what’s real, who’s been lying (or equivocating), and who is full of shit. And it all revolves around Sophie, and who is willing to compromise what parts of his character for her.
And then came an unbearably wonderful scene, the heart of the play, what everything had been leading up to. Sophie pours tea for the three young men (Aaron Michael Zook, Michael Poignand, and Joe Whelski). Sophie is blind, and the suspense was wonderful. She’s in a new situation, the men don’t want to treat her like she’s helpless, and the drama and comedy of the scene, the direction and the acting were breathtaking. It gave gravitas to the following scene where the men get caught unexpectedly in a battle situation.
Sound was another element well-used in the production. (The play was originally written for radio, so the creations of the sound-designer artist would have to be a vital component.) Ann Warren’s evocative design included the accidental recording of the staircase accident, and a game of Ping-Pong. Costumes (Cheryl McCarron) were perfect for the time periods, and the lighting (Carrie Wood) gave depth and focused attention unobtrusively. But the blind girl pouring tea -- now that was art!
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Copyright 2006 David Mackler