KPBS AIRDATE: November 13, 1996
We’ve always been fascinated by the private lives of artists — both factual and fictional. How their inner torment is reflected on their canvases. How frequently they abuse themselves and their loved ones. How they crave fame and are tortured by it. Buyers pay top dollar for their work, but they pay an even higher price for their gift.
There are several artists in residence right now on San Diego stages. “Sight Unseen’s” Jonathan has moved into the space at the Fritz Theatre previously occupied by “Poor Superman’s” David. And in “Changing Rainbows” at Ensemble Arts Theater, Paul aspires to be the success that Jonathan and David have become. In all three cases, personal crisis inspires artistic creativity. The difference is in the art of the playwright.
“Changing Rainbows,” a world premiere, is only the second full-length play by Derrell Capes. It shows. His premise may be interesting: a very nineties, liberated, communicative couple has their marriage torn apart by AIDS. It makes the wife crazy; it makes the husband paint. So far, so good. But the dialogue in this kitchen-sink dramedy is disastrous. Frequently stilted, often unrealistic. Even in the capable hands of a natural, credible actor like Walter Murray, we barely believe this character Paul. The women, ably played by Colleen Mahan and Celeste Innocenti, fare slightly better.
The humor is often ill-placed, and despite the fast-flying barbs, Glynn Bedington has directed at a pokey pace. The metaphorical references to the “Wizard of Oz” are trite and tired, and they reminded me of “Poor Superman’s” equally contrived allusions to another cultural icon.
In sharp contrast, “Sight Unseen” is well-conceived, shrewdly constructed and consistently provocative. Donald Margulies won the 1992 Obie Award for this play, and deservedly so.
In non-linear fashion, transported deftly backward and forward in time, we come to understand the evolution and devolution of a relationship, the amorality of the art world, the paranoia of Jewish identity, and the value of values. We see Jonathan, the Brooklyn Jewish wunderkind of the international art scene, through the eyes of his first model and muse, Patricia. But we also view him through the piercing, unrelenting gaze of her eccentric husband Nick, and the penetrating, seductively scornful stare of Grete, the German journalist.
Karin Williams has directed incisively, underscoring the sexuality, and turning close playing-spaces to her advantage, having the idle actors watch the active ones. On opening night, Lou Seitchik wasn’t quite set in his accent or his character, but he had moments of great insight and talent, just like Jonathan. Tracey MacNeil is terrific as Patricia, and Charlie Riendeau perfectly captures Nick’s eerie, no-nonsense weirdness. As played by Jeannine Torres, Grete is an enigmatic mixture of intellectual and sensual provocateur, with a hint of Jew-baiting stirred in.
What’s great about both this play and this production is that they’re dramatic and theatrical, but they don’t bash you over the head with meaning and message. The layers of significance, the deeper thoughts, come to you gradually, during and after the performance. And that’s real art.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1996 Patté Productions Inc.