Review: ‘Portrait of a Nude’

The evening is divided into four scenes, beginning with the execution of the painting by Goya (Edmund L. Shaff) of Maria, the Duchess of Alba (Erin Donovan). According to the conceit of the play, the Duchess pleads with a reluctant Goya to paint her in the nude, a secret act of rebellion on the part of a frustrated noblewoman. Goya accedes to her wishes, and ultimately is called to answer before Church inquisitors.

The evening is divided into four scenes, beginning with the execution of the painting by Goya (Edmund L. Shaff) of Maria, the Duchess of Alba (Erin Donovan). According to the conceit of the play, the Duchess pleads with a reluctant Goya to paint her in the nude, a secret act of rebellion on the part of a frustrated noblewoman. Goya accedes to her wishes, and ultimately is called to answer before Church inquisitors.

The next scene focuses on the controversy surrounding French painter Edouard Manet’s “Olympia,” another nude that was influenced by Goya’s painting. In this section, Manet (Robert Ross) struggles with the notoriety that both he and his model gained from the work, which was considered scandalous at the time.

Finally, Manet forms an alliance with writer Emile Zola (Peter Lavin) to fight his critics.

In act two, the setting switches to modern times. The first section treats the proposed visit of Princess Diana (Nancy Hinman) to the Prado Museum in Madrid where the “Naked Maja” is displayed.

A Spanish cultural official (Shaff) is outraged by the request of Diana’s handlers to shut off portions of the museum so the princess may view the painting in private without photographers.

Finally, in the most intriguing vignette of the evening, a music professor (Hinman) complains to her dean (Shaff) that a print of the “Naked Maja” is distracting her students and, in effect, subjecting her to sexual harassment.

An aggressive affirmative action counselor (Donovan) gets involved, turning a minor complaint into a major incident.

While the juxtaposition of the different reactions to the painting over two centuries is tantalizing, playwright Shamas never makes much of this mixture, settling for a simple set of comparisons rather than any deeper probing into the important issues of art and censorship.

Although there is a simplistic point to be made — that we haven’t changed much since the days of the inquisitors — the play skims over some of the complexities of this debate, including the human impulse to censor and the interplay of the artist with the censor.

More important for a theater piece, Shamas never offers much emotional engagement in the play, either with the characters or with the ideas that are being tossed about. While the final modern episode does ultimately bring some emotional heat to the play, it is too little, too late.

The acting is generally good, with Shaff a standout in his performances. Hinman is a charming, quirky Princess Di, and Donovan is fine as a feisty Duchess of Alba.

Director Jules Aaron does a solid job of bringing the material to life. Kudos to designer Douglas Smith for a provocative and compelling set.

Portrait of a Nude

(West Coast Ensemble; 68 seats; $ 18 top)

Production

West Coast Ensemble presents a drama in two acts by Laura Shamas. Directed by Jules Aaron; set and lighting design, Douglas D. Smith; costume design, Angela Balogh Calin; sound design, David Mark Peterson; composer, Chuck Estes. Opened and reviewed on Jan. 19, 1996; runs through March 10. Running time: 1 hour, 50 min.

With

Cast: Erin Donovan (Maria, Suzanne, Princess's aide, Ms. Artiz), Nancy Hinman (Clerk, Victorine, Princess, Professor), Peter Lavin (Inquisitor, Zola, Guard, Student), Robert Ross (Inquisitor, Manet, Schoolboy, Student), Edmund L. Shaff (Goya, Baudelaire, Spanish official, Dean). Intriguing piece by Laura Shamas, which opens the West Coast Ensemble's new theater space, examines the reaction through history to the "Naked Maja," painted by Francisco Goya in 1798. While the play raises interesting questions, it never engages either emotionally or intellectually, and presents only a superficial examination of the issues of art and censorship.
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