Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Feb. 8, 2002
Madame X: Outside the FrameThe Off Center,
through February 9
Running Time: 2 hrs
When we look at John Singer Sargent's portrait of Virginie Gautrau, we get the sensuality of its subject, this 23-year-old American living in Paris, in her pale fleshy arms and broad, voluptuous torso. We get her powerful sense of self, in the regal posture, the long, elegant slope of her neck and shoulder and aristocratic twist of her forearm. We even get an air of superiority in the authoritative turn of her head, the slight vexation in the brow, the sharpness of the nose. We get who Gautrau was, as well as what made Sargent an artist we still admire more than a century after he painted her. What we don't get is a sense of what led Sargent to paint this work or what followed his completion of it, when it was first seen by the public. We don't get how art happened or what happened once it did.
In Madame X, playwright Ann Ciccolella provides us a glimpse of this, dramatizing the events surrounding the creation of Sargent's famous portrait, now popularly known by that name, but also using them as a springboard to discuss the nature of art and beauty, and society's role in shaping our perceptions of both. It's a play that gladly gives us answers regarding history but is much more interested in leaving us with questions about the ways we look at art and ourselves, and allow others to define those things for us.
Helen Merino may not be a physical ringer for the woman in Sargent's painting, but she projects in her manner a resemblance to the image of Virginie Gautrau that is arresting. The pride, the hauteur, the bearing, is identical. She carries herself with the care of one whose reputation rests on her appearance. She stares at herself in an imaginary mirror with the concentration of a portraitist scrutinizing a subject. Indeed, Merino's Gautrau is a kindred spirit to Michael Whitener's Sargent in that regard. Both share the piercing gaze of an artist who doesn't simply look at an object, but looks into it, seeking its essence, that spirit that must be translated to the canvas for the painting to work.
It's all too fitting, for in Ciccolella's drama Gautrau sees herself as an artist, too, one whose canvas is her body, whose paints are the lavender powder she applies to her skin and the fashionably cut fabrics she wears. And she, like Sargent, craves attention for her art, the kind of attention that goes beyond praise, that surpasses the efforts of their contemporaries. She covets the singular regard of the new, the innovative, the modern, and will be provocative, even shocking, to get it. That's what makes the play's Gautrau and Sargent such a pair; both possess unabashed ambition, and Merino and Whitener radiate that with feverish intensity. Inspired by Gautrau in her sleeveless gown, Whitener's Sargent attacks the canvas in a frenzy, panting like a man running a 4-minute mile.
The two ultimately get what they desire, but the attention they receive is far from rewarding. Sargent's portrait is denounced as scandalous, a horror, and both artist and subject are dismissed by Parisian society with scorn. In their willingness to court audacity, they've failed to consider the audience for their art as little more than an abstraction and they pay a heavy price for it. It's a lesson their friend, the art critic and novelist Vernon Lee, learned all too well when a book of hers was savaged by the press, and she tried to share her hard-won wisdom with Sargent and Gautrau, but her efforts are for naught.
That isn't true of this Different Stages production, which succeeds in developing an absorbing inquiry into art's purpose and place in our lives. Ciccolella stages the work with efficiency, briskly propelling the play forward, never indulging herself as playwright, and she sees to it that her script is well served by her cast, led by the commanding Merino. In addition to Whitener, Martin Burke is buoyant as Ben, the painter's friend and a man of taste whose great joy is joining artists in a creative match, and Jill Swanson is remarkable as Vernon Lee, the wounded creator, passionate art lover, and dear friend; she sits so naturally in the skin of the character, gracefully communicating Lee's piercing intelligence and ardor, tenderly exposing her heart. Swanson may well be the production's soul, her vulnerability and concern reminding us that art is more than what lies within a frame. It is and will ever be the people who make it and see it; more than poses and pigments, art is flesh and feeling, muscle, bone, and tears.