We often look to works of art to tell us something about their creators. Playwright Matthew Ivan Bennett—completing his busy season of new works for Plan-B Theatre Company—takes that notion quite literally in Di Esperienza.
Bennett’s exploration of the life of Leonardo da Vinci (Michael Brucasco) unfolds in part as a sort of tribunal, as characters from three of the artist’s most celebrated works— Judas Iscariot from “The Last Supper” (Kirt Bateman), the Mona Lisa/“La Giocanda” (Tracie Merrill), and Isabella d’Este (Teresa Sanderson)—attempt to unravel what it meant that so many of his creations either took years to finish or never were finished at all. Scenes from da Vinci’s life—as a young apprentice, in consultation with his patrons, bickering with a preening Michelangelo (also played by Bateman)—serve as “evidence” presented for evaluation, with a bitter Judas as prosecutor and the Mona Lisa as most passionate defender.
The tension in these framing sequences provides for some of the play’s most intriguing exchanges, though, it also exposes the extent to which the triangle of the three works isn’t entirely equilateral. Bateman effectively conveys an attempt by Judas to clear his own name by tearing down his creator, while Merrill exudes adoration even as La Giocanda expresses a need to know who she is. Isabella is meant to serve as balance between the two, but the character never stands out in sharp-enough contrast, even though she is the only one who also gets a scene representing her own creation.
Bennett’s trying to keep a lot of balls in the air—as was the case in Block 8, he sometimes seems too concerned about packing his dialogue with history lessons—but eventually he settles into a great thematic concept. Di Esperienza wants most to synthesize da Vinci, the man of science, with da Vinci, the man of art, exploring contradictions such as how a professed pacifist could design instruments of warfare. What he discovers is a kind of paralysis engendered by the artist’s mathematical mind—an ability to envision a cosmic perfection that he can’t possibly duplicate.
Director Jerry Rapier’s production keeps up a brisk pace through 80 minutes, though he also allows for quieter moments of reflection. It’s a staging as interesting to watch as it is to contemplate, particularly with costumes by Jann Haworth that find Renaissance-era elements overlaying contemporary pants or shoes. The production pulls a 16th century man into a present he often foresaw, in all their mutual complexity.
Plan-B Theatre Company
Rose Wagner Studio Theatre
138 W. 300 South
Theatrical productions can be disappointing. At times, their audiences can be even more disappointing.
It happened at an opening weekend performance of End Days, Salt Lake Acting Company’s production of the comedy-drama by Deborah Zoe Laufer. Set in September 2003, it follows an American family relocated from New York City to the suburbs but still living in the shadow of 9/11 (quite literally, thanks to Keven Myhre’s silvery set pieces evoking Ground Zero rubble). Arthur Stein (Paul Kiernan) is a World Trade Center survivor whose guilt has become a paralyzing depression. His 16-year-old daughter Rachel (Marin Kohler) has become a sullen goth-girl. And his wife Sylvia (Colleen Baum) has become a born-again Christian, proselytizing on street corners and convinced that the Rapture is imminent.
It was the reaction to the latter that proved so frustrating. In the first scene, we see that Sylvia envisions a beatifically smiling Jesus (Nick O’Donnell) with her everywhere she goes, inspiring a laugh of surprise. Yet as the play progresses, certain audience members couldn’t help chuckling every time Sylvia said, “I love you, Jesus”—this despite the utter sincerity with which Baum plays those readings.
Laufer’s play—and this production deserves better. This is no smirking smackdown of fervent religiosity; End Days truly seeks an understanding of what might pull a previously agnostic woman into awestruck devotion to the Lord. It’s also tremendously entertaining— though, at times, it pushes the quirkiness envelope. The story’s catalyst is the Steins’ new neighbor—and Rachel’s smitten classmate—Nelson (Daniel Lara), orphaned and compelled to wear a Vegas-Elvis outfit, yet still a raging optimist. Rachel finds herself engaging in marijuana-fueled imaginary conversations with Dr. Stephen Hawking (also played by Nick O’Donnell). Between the absurdism and Nelson’s holy-fool wisdom, End Days easily could have turned into something utterly divorced from reality.
Instead, director Kirstie Rosenfield guides her superb cast through something infused with genuine yearning. Laufer ties both Arthur’s catatonia and Sylvia’s fanaticism—one stuck in the past, the other always looking to the future—to the same fear of the present. Baum and Kiernan—two of the most reliably terrific actors in the state—find real emotion in their difficulty connecting, and their abilities help young actors like Lara and Kohler to raise their game. As the four principal characters unite during a vigil for the apocalypse that Sylvia is sure will come, End Days becomes a potent reminder of what can be gained by living in the moment. And that’s nothing to snicker at.
Salt Lake Acting Company
168 W. 500 North