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Tucson Weekly Tortured Artist Effect

More Jerk Than Genius, 'Caravaggio' Fails To Entice Our Empathy.

By Dave Irwin

APRIL 12, 1999:  BILLED AS "A powerful and raw adult drama," Caravaggio has a problem. The play, the second production offered by CityPlayers, postulates that an artist, by virtue of his radiant brilliance, should be forgiven the excesses of his sins. However, the obscure 16th-century painter of the title, whose use of shadow influenced Rubens, is presented here as a caricature who is more jerk than genius.

Despite apt acting and technical support, the leather-clad character's aberrant lifestyle merely reveals another lost soul who squandered his skills in a mire of sex and violence. A vindicating epitaph it is not.

John Gunn adapted, designed and directed this work based on Irish playwright Frank McGuinness' Innocence. According to Gunn, former artistic director of now-defunct Millennium Productions, only about half of McGuinness' original script remains. CityPlayers, which presented its first production at its new venue in February, has already scrapped plans for what would have been a relatively traditional season of works such as the '60s comedy The Knack (and How To Get It), and Edward Albee's Pulitzer Prize-winning A Delicate Balance. With the announcement that its next production will be Euripides' The Bacchae, complete with nudity, violence and mature themes, the company appears to be staking out a claim to decadent theatre.

Premiering on Easter night in what may have been either sacrilegious irony or simply bad marketing, Caravaggio is guaranteed to offend any devout Roman Catholic. The play proposes that the artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, played by Brian Weese, served as a pimp, procuring and product testing young male prostitutes for his leering patron, Cardinal Frances Maria del Monte (Charles Prokopp).

The opening scene is a wordless surrealistic nightmare, with Caravaggio contemplating a skull à la Hamlet, while the characters of his life dance around him. We then shift to "Lena's Hovel," where Caravaggio wakes up from a drunken stupor, blinded and bandaged at his girlfriend's apartment. Lena, a medieval strumpet with a heart of gold, played by Kathryn Knapp, provides the sot with comfort, nursing and clever repartee between his debaucheries.

"I am a fucking great painter!" Caravaggio proclaims.

"You're a turd and a long one," Lena retorts.

The relationship is a love/hate thing, and later includes a trip to Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf in an ambiguous discussion about their possible son. When Caravaggio pulls a knife on her, Lena slaps him silly. Anna the Whore (Marylou Duckworth), as Lena's business mentor, provides additional tension and comic relief. Then it's off to Caravaggio's second job (or is it his primary employment?), picking up a couple of male hookers from the street.

General manager Sean Zackson and director-in-residence Vasna B. Chan are the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of the play. Chan in particular gives a gender-bending performance as a male that's subtle and riveting, all the more so for having jumped into the role only a few days before when the original player disappeared. She was notable in the company's adaptation of The Tempest, and she again demonstrates a prodigious talent as an actor here.

We then move to the Cardinal's palace, where we get philosophical discussions and finger sucking. Prokopp, who was also noteworthy in The Tempest, has a devil of a good time as the pedophilic prelate, slandering God and Catholicism with relish and seeming impunity. He later returns in Caravaggio's dream as a broken man, but manages to get back on his feet and show he still has the dickens in him. Prokopp's madcap performance is a delight.

At the end of Act I, Caravaggio is confronted by his monk brother (Tim A. Janes in a very competent performance), then returns in Act II's dream sequence as we learn from their dead sister (newcomer Amy Booth) what a rough childhood Caravaggio had. In the end, and after killing a man, Caravaggio flees, having reconciled with the dead victims of his excesses. In the final tableau, we see the actors become the models for Caravaggio's painted homage to the crucified Christ.

As Caravaggio, Weese gives the undisciplined performance of an unattractive character. His gestures seem too casual, his chief acting a limp-wristed flick and a contemptuous, continuous sneer, except for his weepy childhood scenes. Neither he nor Gunn imbues this scoundrel with redeeming qualities. Since the extent of his greatness is limited to self-aggrandizing claims and the final tableau, we're left rooting for God's wrath, rather than feeling sympathetic to his unfortunate life and underappreciated talent.

Knapp, however, gives a winning performance. With the modernized dialogue, at times we're unsure if this is historical drama or an off-kilter romantic comedy, but she seems perfectly at home in either world. Knapp's electricity with Weese is a pleasure.

In support of the production, Gunn's set and lighting go beyond functional, effectively transporting us to the various aspects of the Caravaggio's life. The costuming by Alissa Latham is also richly detailed.

Two technical notes: Prokopp makes the Sign of the Cross in the Eastern Orthodox rather than the Roman Catholic manner (an error that can get you shot in Serbia); and please, please get Zackson something more substantial than see-through tights.

Caravaggio, with its contemporary and off-color language, paeans to gay sex, numerous diatribes toward Catholicism and an unrepentant main character, seems undecided as to its aim: campy production, celebration of sensual indulgence in the name of art, or a philosophical statement. The contradiction between the artist's deeply religious works and his debauchery is never clarified. With the subject's incessantly self-destructive behavior, the play never rises far enough above self-pity to reach a level of true tragedy. Nonetheless, as a prototype for future CityPlayer's productions, Caravaggio hints at some interesting directions.

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