Friday, May 29, 2015

"From Darkness" at nimbus theatre

Everything I know about art I learned from playing the game Masterpiece as a kid (Private Auction! anyone?) and from the Baroque Art History class I took at the University of Salzburg (a pretty amazing experience because we took field trips to Vienna and Rome to see the art we were studying). So I don't know much, but I am fascinated by art and art history. But I've never thought much about art forgery, which adds a whole new level of fascination. This topic is the inspiration for nimbus theatre's new play From Darkness, written (along with the ensemble) and directed by co-Artistic Director Josh Cragun. Specifically, how does someone with the skill of an art master decide to practice art forgery instead of creating original work? From Darkness sets fictional art forger Stanley Mansfield among real artists in NYC's post-WWII abstract art scene and attempts to answer this question, as well as explore ideas of what makes art valuable. It's a fascinating, thought-provoking play, and as is often the case when I see a play at nimbus, it made me want to find out more about the topic.

Caravaggio's The Denial of St. Peter
We follow two groups of characters in two different time periods in NYC - a group of artists and art collectors in the '30s, '40s, and '50s, and art curators at the Met in the current day. Both stories center around the above piece of art - The Denial of St. Peter by Caravaggio (one of my favorite artists from the Baroque Art History class). A new curator at the Met discovers something off about the painting, leading her to research its history. At the same time, we're watching Stanley Mansfield's life and career as an artist unfold. He's a figurative painter at a time when abstract painting is all the rage. He watches his friends (including Jackson Pollack and Lee Krasner) succeed while he struggles to find his place. Through a series of circumstances, his career begins to take a different path. At the end of the play the two stories come together, and we're left wondering just who the bad guy is, if there is one.

Nicholas Nelson as the forger Stanley Mansfield
Everyone in the eight-person ensemble plays multiple characters, except for Nicholas Nelson who plays forger Stanley Mansfield, and makes his transition believable and sympathetic. Highlights in the ensemble include Art Peden as the older Stanley, Zach Morgan as his stern father and the tempestuous Pollack, and Heidi Berg as the strict art curator and gallery owner Betty Parsons. The clever set is constructed of rotating panels, opening up to form different locations, revealing reproductions (by Ursula K. Bowden) of different paintings, from Caravaggio to Pollack. The rotating panels make for some awkward scene transitions, which are nicely covered by period music and images of paintings, buildings, or old New York displayed on either side of the stage. And I recognized a few of my favorite Masterpiece paintings in the images projected before the show and during intermission. (Set design by Brian Hesser, video design by Caitlin Hammel.)

As a new play, From Darkness feels a bit long and could be tightened up a bit, but the multiple characters and timelines are nicely woven together and the ideas explored compelling, relevant, and definitely worth exploring. Who decides what art is worthwhile, and which artists are worthy of acclaim? If a viewer gets as much enjoyment from a reproduction of a painting as the original, isn't that worth something too? Fashion designers don't physically construct the garments they design (except on Project Runway); someone else makes them according to the designer's specifications. That's not so very different from Mansfield constructing a painting following Caravaggio's design. In the current age of the internet, reproductions and replications of all forms of art abound. As long as the original creator is given credit, and we all know what's going on, isn't that a good thing, to spread art to as many people as possible? I don't know, but these are some of the things this play made me think about.

As Caravaggio excelled in the technique of extreme light and dark known as chiaroscuro, "from darkness, light," nimbus theatre excels at creating original work around an interesting topic, bringing to life on their stage relevant ideas and questions about various facets of life and history. From Darkness continues through June 14 (discount tickets available on Goldstar).