by Jeff Grygny
“I’m not a good person,” the Artist repeats during The Glance, Dale Gutzman’s new original play currently showing at Off the Wall Theatre. Even for a profession not famous for playing nicely with others, the painter known as Caravaggio was infamous for his brawling, whoring, and generally “strange” behavior. He nevertheless painted almost entirely religious subjects and was adored by the Italian cognoscenti for his work’s brutal sensuality and shocking naturalism. This play is a fictional account of a particularly dangerous period in the artist’s life: it finds him shacked up in a seedy studio in Milan fleeing a murder charge.
Caravaggio’s paintings are famous for their dramatic lighting and theatrical composition. His subjects look at the viewer with a frank, challenging gaze, giving an uncanny sense of contact with an actual breathing person, like a momentary Skype across the centuries. Director Gutzman translates these qualities amazingly well to the stage: at times the action will pause to create painterly tableaux; lighting by David Roper accentuates the actor’s soft flesh with deep shadows. And while the players don’t break the fourth wall, their marvelously subtle acting is all in their eyes. Plus, the audience is seated on both sides of the action, giving us a backdrop of real people like extras in a scene from the life of Christ. In style, the play, while conveying the feverish qualities of the time, does not seem at all a period piece, but fresh and immediate. A score by Philip Glass lends a contemporary note.
By calling his protagonist “The Artist,” Gutzman clearly wants us to reflect on the artist’s role, as both outcast and true seer. This Caravaggio is an explosive mixture, enclosed in the tight container of the Christian world about to explode into the modern age. Max Williamson plays him as an unhappily caged animal; scowling, pacing, sometimes sulking under a bed sheet. His eyes express the unflinching perception of Rembrandt, or the helpless vision of Van Gogh. They see too much. Randal Anderson brings credibility to the role of an uptight priest ennobled by his love for Caravaggio rent-boy brother, played with warmth by Nathan Danzer. Together with Abigail Fuchs as a refugee from the plague, we see a portrait of intimacy: an impromptu family in a hostile world. Michael Pocaro, as a self-flagellating Cardinal, never descends into stereotypical psycho mode; even when he shows up with bleeding stigmata, he seems more like an amateur baker delighted with a perfect souffle: “the pope is going to be so jealous!” This, oddly, makes him seem even more unhinged. And though Mark Ninneman’s humble friar is nearly silent, he manages to radiate common decency.
This is a deeply subversive play, whose over-the-top action is counterbalanced by its low-key delivery. Like Caravaggio, Gutzman is a master at dressing people up, posing them theatrically, and showing us wry, ambiguous scenes. Like the painter, he seems compelled to show the truth as it presents itself to his eyes: raw, beautiful, and grotesque—not the edited fictions that enable social existence. Art and religion both concern themselves with the making of meaning; Gutzman, through his artist stand-in, is outraged by institutions that impose meaning by force and manipulation—especially, perhaps, when that meaning is founded on such deep contempt for the human body, with all its pleasures and sensations, as much Christian theology is. Is Caravaggio really “not a good person,” or is his acting-out simply the collateral damage of an impossible cultural dilemma?
Not everyone will appreciate Gutzman’s undisguised hatred of religion, nor the heavy-handed way in which his characters serve as mouthpieces for his opinions. But for all that, “The Glance” is as strange, lovely and effecting as the art which he so obviously loves.
Off the Wall Theatre presents
by Dale Gutzman
playing through March 8