A Body of Art
The best scene in The Credeaux Canvas, the first offering of the new Identity Theatre Company, is an extended nude scene, in which a young woman poses for a painter. She is Amelia, a singer trying to make her way in New York; the painter is Winston, an art student, who eventually takes off his own clothes in an effort to make his model feel more comfortable. As played by Stephanie Lynn Prugh, Amelia nestles in a huge armchair, embodying the mix of soft relaxation and wire-thin tension we sense in a curled-up cat. The two share their thoughts. It's clear Amelia is beginning to love Winston. Later we will learn that Winston does not reciprocate; the person he loves is the woman in his painting. Real women, with their neediness and their messy emotions, drive him into paroxysms of boredom and impatience.
The scene is touching and tender, a sequence in which everything important in the play comes together: ideas about seeing and not seeing; the youth and clear energy of the protagonists; their passion for art and the slow-dawning realization that the world they live in chews artists into pulp and spits out their bones.
The Credeaux Canvas evoked a lot of memories for me. In my twenties, I made a living for a time posing for artists while trying to break into theater in New York. I know the relationship between model and artist is a complex one -- highly charged, even when neither has sexual designs on the other. As a confused twenty-something, I found it astonishing to have my body regarded by someone else not as the flawed and imperfect thing I thought it was, but as something worth transmutation into art. To an artist, my form was beautiful precisely because it didn't match some kind of airbrushed Playboy idea of perfection. He accepted it precisely as it was; its flaws made his work more interesting; to him, I was form and pattern, gradations of light and shadow. When you model, the artist objectifies you -- literally makes you into a thing. When you gaze at that thing, you are returned to yourself again. And the artist, too, feels a kind of love, not for you personally, but for you as the mechanism that allows his art to come into existence.
The Credeaux Canvas does a good job of evoking all this. Amelia is a singer working as a waitress -- though she's been fired from her latest job. Winston is entirely immersed in the world of painting, and busy copying the work of the artists he admires -- in particular, an obscure Fauvist by the name of Jean Paul Credeaux, who he is convinced is about to be rediscovered. Copying the work of masters is a time-honored way of evolving a style of one's own. The play leaves open the question of whether Winston will find his own voice or remain a minor and derivative talent.
The third member of the trio is Jamie. After a brief, aimless stint in art school, Jamie is selling real estate, sharing a messy attic apartment with Winston and dating Amelia. He makes up for his own sense of futility and worthlessness with extravagant praise for the talents of his two friends. As the play opens, Jamie's wealthy art dealer father has died, leaving his son out of his will. But, just as Winston suspected, Credeaux is coming back into style. Jamie is convinced that if he can persuade Winston to paint a fake Credeaux -- using Amelia as his model -- he'll be able to sell it to one of his father's clients for a huge sum of money.
The play is at its best as this light, clever plot develops and the three friends talk about life and art, sex, hope and despair. Things skim along until Amelia drops a clunker: She's pregnant. Still, the playwright recovers his lightness of tone, and the scene in which the wealthy client, Tess, examines the fake Credeaux is highly entertaining.
It's when Amelia declares her love for Winston and he responds with indifference that things become a little melodramatic. And the final act seems tacked on, neither resolving what's gone before nor adding anything much. Overall, the language is too well-shaped to sound like spontaneous speech. Nonetheless, I'd like to hear more from author Keith Bunin.
Lance Beilstein is an appealing Jamie, though his manic episodes are more convincing than his moments of anguish (some of the fault here is in the writing). Jason Lee Burnside shows both Winston's callousness and his vulnerability. We don't quite believe in all Tess's power and money, as Betsy Grisard plays the role. Prugh is a little too self-conscious to communicate Amelia's emotional depths. Paradoxically, she seems most at ease during the modeling scene: Her skin takes the light beautifully; her voice becomes smoothly seductive; she seems to embody all those dancers, prostitutes, noblemen and great ladies whose eyes follow you from gallery walls, dead people made immortal by the intensity with which a painter once saw them.
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