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Theater Review:

"ARTIST DESCENDING A STAIRCASE,"
Broutil and Frothingham Productions at The Theatre Building

BY LUCIA MAURO

Beauty – and art for that matter – is often considered to be in the eye of the beholder. So the fact that Tom Stoppard makes one of his pivotal characters blind in "Artist Descending a Staircase," a play commenting on the inflated egos of visual artists, sets a slyly winking tone awash in absurdist inversions.

Broutil and Frothingham Productions, a three-year-old troupe dedicated to plays in the farcical-mayhem vein, has tackled its most complicated piece to date. "Artist Descending a Staircase" does not rely on slamming doors or elaborate on-stage gastronomical feats -- only a series of metaphors crashing through a wobbly rail in a bohemian garret. The play’s inherently symbolic commentary poses a trickier challenge to a company more adept at the choreographed chaos of broadly zany fare. Rhythmic inconsistency is this production’s most serious flaw, but not necessarily a fatal one.

Nevertheless, in a work that sets up a confusing chronological jigsaw puzzle, the misplaced rhythm can only add to more complicated mental entanglements. Director Terry McCabe, who has proven his dexterity at unwinding the most jumbled plot twists in previous productions, seems to get tied in knots when it comes to illuminating Stoppard’s intricate ironies.

"Artist Descending a Staircase," initially written as a radio play in 1972 and given a full-fledged stage production 16 years later in London’s West End, opens on what appears to be the scene of a crime. Self-absorbed sound artist, Beauchamp, plays a reel recording the last words of his rival in art and love, Donner: "Ah! There you are!" – followed by a skirmish and a deadly fall. Beauchamp is trying to make a case for murder and accuses avant-garde sculptor Martello of acting on his jealous rage toward Donner.

The comedy-thriller proceeds to move backward in time – from Donner’s death in the early 1970s to the men’s early years as struggling artists in England between 1914 and 1922. The seed of conflict is planted by the character of Sophie, a vibrant and intelligent art connoisseur who loses her sight before she can meet the artist whose painting (now quickly fading in her visual memory) has made an impact on her. Her intuition leads her to believe the callous Beauchamp touched her heart. The pair even move in together. But Donner, whose painting most likely was the one that changed Sophie’s life, broods in silent desperation over the loss of his one true love.

Stoppard essentially strips away the artifice of the art world and goes on to cut every ism (from cubism to moderism itself) down to its ridiculous, self-serving size. He also pulls some ingeniously reversals, testing our own artistic conditioning in a scene involving a certain Pablo (in no way connected to Picasso). The playwright’s "rewind" and "fast-forward" structure mirrors Beauchamp’s obsession with his manipulated, tape-recorded collections of sounds that conceal the real truth at the same time they claim to reveal it.

In the end, all of Beauchamp’s overblown theories get swatted into oblivion.

As Sophie, Cameron Feagin most successfully achieves Stoppard’s subtly moving sense of paradox. Doug MacKechnie’s quietly intense but measured Donner is also more in tune with the play’s tragic yet broadly satiric commentary. On the flip side, Brian Posen as the ambitious Beauchamp and George Seegebrecht as the good-natured Martello appear to perform their roles outside the loaded confines of the play, creating a disturbingly detached and unfocused tone that hinders the plot’s flashbacks and advancement.

The play’s themes are visually enhanced by scenic designers Richard and Jacqueline Penrod, who have crafted a mad laboratory-playground of modern art, lit with self-referential theatricality by Andrew Meyer.•

"Artist Descending a Staircase" runs through June 17 at The Theatre Building, 1225 W. Belmont. Tickets: $22-$26. Call 773-327-5252 or 312-902-1500.

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