Up Close with Michelangelo Caravaggio and Artemisia Gentileschi

Two worthy, biographical dramas unfortunately titled NEC METU and NEC SPE (Without Hope, Without Fear) debuted in symbiotic tandem at The United Solo Festival this week to  an audience that would have been packed if titles clearly indicated subject. Both were written by playwright/actor Sara Fellini who I interviewed in this year’s United Solo Preview article. 

Fellini is smart, perceptive, and the kind of deep-dive researcher who benefits historical illumination. Not only does she offer well thought out characterization, but credible conjecture about the painters’ artistic choices is so engaging, it makes one want to look up unfamiliar artwork. Cinematic specificity of era and social mores provides solid context. Both subjects emerge whole, complex human beings. All this would be merely intriguing were it not for Fellini’s infectious passion. Insightful crossovers between the two pieces are like finding the coin in a plum pudding. A playwright to be watched.

NEC SPE: Michelangelo Caravaggio (1571-1610) is known perhaps equally well for his violent, libertine life as the painter’s realistic depiction of the state of common man and dramatic use of chiaroscuro that would influence artists for generations.

“Eh, padre… I don’t usually speak plainly to authority. But you’re not an ordinary priest, are you? Since you already know me deeply, I think I’ll make my confession… I killed a man in cold blood…like a coward … stabbed the pimp, then ran through the streets … a sweating, bleeding cur…”

We’re in the afterlife. Caravaggio’s self-told history creates a portrait, not an excuse. He’s blunt, hedonistic, intense, and angry. Entering Rome with neither money, nor connections, he executed yeoman tasks for workshops during the day and sold his own work “like apples” at night. Description of street life is affectionate and resonant. His skills the source of abject jealousy, the painter ends up in a fight and then jail, a consistent sequence in his life.

Caravaggio’s  self portrait of Bacchus is unlike any prior representation. He paints what he sees. “My flesh pale and sickly, my eyes yellow and glassy, my rib cage a visible claw under my thin flesh. I offer you some musty grapes from a basket of rotting, worm infested fruit.” The iconoclastic work sells and he’s given a commission. Whores and boys are preferred models because they express emotion. He sees them. “Most people don’t like to be seen.”

Sharing church commissions with a better known, second rate painter, the struggling artist is told he must use azure blue to coordinate with the altar. The color is too expensive. While the other artist creates an immense sky, Caravaggio mutes his palette using blue only on a coat crumpled in the corner. Success. Still, his reputation is one of “imitation” for detailed representation. Art is vividly described, a few relationships endure as does the artist’s roiling resentment. He’s in and out of jail. Due to extraordinary work, a pardon (for the murder) eventually comes from Rome. He never makes it back – a story in itself.

Adam Belvo creates a volatile, manly, unrepentant character. (Italian pronunciation could be better.) Unfortunately, he’s given much too much stage business, often helplessly clutching the crumpled curtain to no end instead of using it with extreme selectivity. Director Emma Rosa Went also imagines that shouting is the only way to communicate outrage, as a result of which little of it registers (except on pained ears). The actor has talent.

NEC METU: Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656) was an accomplished painter who brought her teacher to court for rape. She went on to support herself and two later daughters as an artist in an era that denied women status and freedom.

“Bless me, padre, for I have sinned. It’s been four hundred years since my last confession, and I have had impure thoughts. About Agostino Tassi (the rapist). I have thought about cutting his head off and setting it on a pike in my bedroom, then peeling the flesh off of his bones and carefully cleaning his skull to use as a goblet….”

The painter continues with an allegory about Medusa, raped by Neptune and turned into a monster by his jealous wife Minerva. “…her greatest joy came when men would encroach upon her solitude, and she would turn them to stone.” Relating the myth, Artemisia changes “she” to “I.” A telling preface.

Instead of proceeding chronologically, brief recollections of family and work are interjected between descriptions of powerful women reflecting trauma and feminism brought to life in the artist’s oeuvre. Vivid as they are, some of these might be best placed elsewhere as we’re impatient to “get started.” At 17, Artemisia is married off to a mediocre painter and on her way to Florence before we hear about the pivotal event that took place years before. Life is difficult and unfulfilling, though she has two beloved daughters.

Then, suddenly, we’re back in Rome with a much younger heroine. The leap is disorienting. Her father’s friend Caravaggio influences the girl’s art. “He has covered his entire canvas in black, painted light onto dark. His figures burst out of the blackness, accosting you with their aggressive poverty, their utter and horrible realism all the while lit by unearthly, Heavenly light that emanates from nowhere.”

Here’s where Agostino Totsi comes in. She’s raped. Her father takes the perpetrator to court as a “thief”- of virginity. A trial follows. Detail is terrific. (Fellini has read the transcript.) Suffering torture involving her hands (to prove honesty) is strikingly manifest. It’s impossible to fathom how this girl stood unwavering against fear, humiliation, history and society. Rome, Naples, England, back to Rome. She establishes herself against all odds. We learn about Artemisia as an artist, a woman, a mother, and a friend – not a victim. The ending is eloquent.

Sara Fellini pours herself into this role with abandon. It’s clear she has skill.  While the painter’s strength and confidence is believable, however, Director Emma Rosa Went has her heroine playing Artemisia like an often petulant, cocky, young girl. As she died an experienced woman and is here looking back on life, this feels inappropriate and robs the piece of gravitas. Like Belvo, Went gives the actress way, way too much stage business distracting from incisive narrative and pivotal emotional moments.

Caravaggio is close to production ready. With some restructuring Artemisia will be as compelling, entertaining and enlightening a piece. Assuming a new Director.

Ian Peterson’s Set and Virginia Davis’s Costumes are both raw and effective.

Photos by Yvonne Allaway

In its 8th season, United Solo, the country’s largest, most varied solo theater festival, offers 120 theatrical pieces from six continents and 23 countries. Each and every one of these one acts was written by the person performing it. They include biographical and autobiographical pieces, dramas, comedies, puppetry, mime, mentalism and music. Some feature recorded sound, some utilize video, some include movement or dance. The festival is an inexpensive way to enjoy original, often premiering theater as it finds its sea legs in an intimate environment.

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About Alix Cohen (1635 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.