UT/TAPS stage heists and lows of twenty-something scam artists

In Keith Bunin’s The Credeaux Canvas young people make art, and a lot of mistakes.

By Will Dart

The latter portion of winter quarter is not the most fun time to be alive. As the assignments pile up and the most miniscule of participation grades start to look like the arbiters of life and death, it’s within reason that one might begin to sort of lose one’s shit… at least a little, anyway. But, if the events of University Theater’s production of Keith Bunin’s The Credeaux Canvas are anything to go by, at least we’re not alone in our youthful misadventures. In fact, our screw-ups shine by comparison.

The central players in The Credeaux Canvas are the stock characters of modern theater: three beautiful, struggling twenty-somethings in New York City. Winston (fourth-year Fred Schmidt-Arenales) is a talented artist who’s having trouble developing his own style and is astoundingly apathetic about it. Jamie (third-year Jimmy Brown), his roommate, is the son of a wealthy art dealer whose manic energy and ambition are wasted on increasingly futile ventures. Tying it all together is Jamie’s girlfriend Amelia (fourth-year Izzy Olive), who’s trying to make it in the city as a singer but has thus far found more gainful employment in the service industry.

It’s all going swimmingly until the death of his hard-assed but financially supportive father and a run-in with a wealthy art collector (third-year Lizzy Lewis) prompt Jamie to come up with a charmingly hair-brained get-rich-quick scheme: have Winston forge a painting by the soon-to-be in vogue French master Jean-Paul Credeaux and use Amelia as the model. They’d then sell the portrait to the hapless collector and make tons of money. It sounds like a stupid idea, and it is. But the events that follow are much more troubling than the usual comedic hijinks such poorly thought out plots are prone to breed. Things get very real, and things go very wrong, very fast.

“It’s a play about young people trying to figure out how to make art and love,” says the show’s director, fourth-year Jesse Roth, “and about how life can start to spin out of control when things get desperate.” It’s discouragingly easy to identify with the confusion and chaos that abounds on stage, although our own shit rarely hits the fan as spectacularly as it does for Winston, Jamie and Amelia. “It’s like your typical awful week… that escalates in the worst way possible.”

Aside from the chance to stage such a deliciously unfortunate turn of events, Roth was also keen on working with a script that “could really let the actors work.” Roth’s actors do good work, too, and they work well together. Schmidt-Arenales and Brown make an interesting (if not entirely plausible) pair as roommates Jamie and Winston; one is impossibly energetic and excitable, while the other is slightly less animated than a block of wood. Olive seems like a natural for the part of Amelia; she speaks volumes with a still face and, in a feat of theatrics as impressive as I’ve ever seen, at one point swallows a spoonful of peanut butter without missing a beat. All three deliver nuanced performances, imbuing their characters with the sort of depth that requires no backstory. We can look at the surface and see the brush strokes underneath.

Mention must be made of the production’s exceedingly inventive set. Haphazard craft supplies, rows of empty bottles, and a combination bathroom-kitchen suggest a very lived-in apartment that’s half art studio and half health code violation. Lighting, arguably the crux of the play’s action, is expertly handled and very dynamic—Logan’s sophisticated systems work in tandem with the set’s built-in fixtures. I have no idea how any of it works, but it’s all very interesting to watch.

But, fascinating as their surroundings are, it speaks to the quality of Bunin’s writing (and the skill of those who bring it to life) to say that your attention won’t wander far from the frames and movements of the characters who inhabit them. There are some nice surprises in the way words are spoken, and in the way glances are met or avoided. The characters share some extremely charged moments; it’s transfixing, and more than a little discomfiting. But, all told, it’s pretty cathartic, too. With luck, you won’t find yourself in this kind of mess anytime soon.

That comes after college.

The Credeaux Canvas, Logan Center, Theater West 115, through March 2