POP GOES THE EASEL | Arts | Denver | Denver Westword | The Leading Independent News Source in Denver, Colorado
Navigation

POP GOES THE EASEL

Kevin Barry tries to zero in on a painter's life in The Secret of Durable Pigments, now in its premiere production at the Changing Scene. The playwright creates a number of interesting little portraits--the artist's mother, his best friend, his kindly old aunt--but his portrait of the artist as an...
Share this:
Kevin Barry tries to zero in on a painter's life in The Secret of Durable Pigments, now in its premiere production at the Changing Scene. The playwright creates a number of interesting little portraits--the artist's mother, his best friend, his kindly old aunt--but his portrait of the artist as an aging jerk ultimately does not tell us much about the creative process.

Since we know nothing about his painting, we are asked to take it on faith that Royal Varjak is an important artist. All we are left with is the debris of his life--minus the sacrifices, discipline or inspiration that the creation of art entails. The play might as well have been about an engineer.

The inventive structure of the play, while a little messy, is also its strongest asset. All the characters sit on the stage, moving in and out of the action as each gives his or her side of the story. Time expands or contracts almost like stream-of-consciousness, and occasionally a character suddenly shifts back in time to illustrate a point.

Varjak's wife (played with competent outrage and chagrin by Melody Thomas) relates how she met Royal, posed for him, bore his child and then left him as he grew more and more obsessive about painting and less and less communicative with her. She finds solace in the arms of his best friend, an artist we are supposed to believe is less talented.

We hear from the artist's mother, a spiteful hag who controls the people around her through guilt and humiliation. Sue Buck is terrific in the role, giving the nasty Lydia a whiny self-pity that makes her jibes at others even harder to take. Lydia's the kind of mother who might drive anyone to the edge.

James Mills plays Royal's father as a man subdued by his obnoxious wife. It's a warm, likable performance. Marion R. Rex as kindly Aunt Lika is the one true motherly figure in the artist's life. It is she who takes the small boy to see Matisse at the museum, buys him crayons and paints and lauds all his efforts.

But the best performances of the evening belong to Jason Hauser as Royal's friend, Tommy, and Gina E. Cline as his daughter, Tina. These young actors have a riveting poise on stage. Hauser strips to pose for Royal and turns to us to grin sheepishly and tell us how foolish he feels. It's a delightful moment, because he actually seems completely comfortable with himself. Cline, meanwhile, can turn on a dime from little girl to angry teen to self-assured young woman. It's amazing how charming these two are and how instantly they enliven the stage around them.

Geron Coale, on the other hand, plays Royal without benefit of passion. Tepid and tentative on stage, Coale fails to involve the audience in his character's plight. When Royal contemplates suicide, we can trace neither despair nor uncertainty in his features. What the play lacks in insight about the creative process Coale might have made up for in intensity. Instead, we get an inhibited performance with very little nuance.

Plays and films about artists almost always miss what is really extraordinary about their subjects in favor of sensationalizing eccentricities, personal inadequacies and other mostly irrelevant data. We have venerated eccentricity for its own sake throughout the twentieth century, and many a wannabe has mistaken erratic or dysfunctional behavior for creativity. The Secret of Durable Pigments mistakes the sorry detritus of an artist's life for the creative impulse itself. Perhaps the playwright needs to ask himself what he thinks is the meaning of the creative act--and act on it.

BEFORE YOU GO...
Can you help us continue to share our stories? Since the beginning, Westword has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver — and we'd like to keep it that way. Our members allow us to continue offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food, and culture with no paywalls.