University Theatre presents Tom Stoppard's Artist Descending a Staircase this week, directed by Anna Brenner. Originally written as a radio play, Artist follows the lives of Martello, Donner, and Beauchamp, three avant-garde artists; and a woman, Sophie, the love interest and sometime muse of all three. One of the most interesting aspects of the play is its physical structure: it begins in 1972, when the artists are old men, and works backwards, each scene going further and further into the past. Artist begins with Martello and Beauchamp listening to a recording of someone falling down the stairs. It becomes clear that it is Donner, the third artist, who has fallen to his death. The rest of the play is presented in such a way that the information dealing with the conflict between the three unfolds bit by bit as the action regresses back to 1914. In the end, the play comes full circle and returns to 1972, and in an interesting and unexpected fashion, the complex relationship between Donner and Sophie comes to resolution.
I enjoyed this play primarily because it was less about Stoppard's traditional format, i.e. focusing on dense intellectual ideas (although there still is a great deal of academic jargon), than it was about a very touching, tragic love story. The actors give heartfelt, masterful performances, which rightly enhance the already beautiful play. Virginia Killian, who plays the lively Sophie, is at once charming, capable, and vulnerable. Her performance is inspired and is one of the best to be seen at UT this quarter. Beauchamp, portrayed by Steve Lund, an Off-Off veteran, does an admirable job in providing the comic relief. Bryson Engelen and Ben Traster give uneven yet predominantly solid performances. The actors seemed to be attempting English accents (which are important elements in this play), and not doing so hot. In addition, the actors begin as elderly characters, then switch abruptly to younger characters somewhat unconvincingly. However, the artists are delightful together, and the antics of the three friends are at times melodramatic, farcically comedic, and even, on rare occassions, resemble the Three Stooges.
The show itself is technically beautiful, and it was a joy to simply sit and take in the sensory experience. Light designer Chad Kenward is to be commended for an exemplary design. He combines onstage lighting with bright washes and cooler spotlights and creates a variety of moods. Anne King has crafted beautiful costumes, befitting of artists of the historical avant-garde era; however, as the play spans over fifty years and three distinct locations, the clothing seems a tad inappropriate at times. David Unger (set designer) along with Alex Berkowitz and Peter O'Keefe (props designers) have created what can only be described as an abstract picture out of found objects. The stage is scattered with debris, odd furniture, mannequins, hats, clothing, and random objets-d'art. The location created by such furnishings is at once intriguing and confusing; the props locate play in an attic so well that when the scenes shift to one of the other places, it leaves the audience feeling a bit awkward. As the play was originally meant for the radio, the sound design is more present than with other standard UT performances. Because of the precision needed, sound designer Paul Franke controls the sound manually throughout the performance.
Director Anna Brenner combines the often-difficult technical aspects of the play with the strong performances of her actors to create a wonderful show. She is to be commended for the artistry of this complex play. Artist Descending a Staircase is being performed at University Theatre in the Kinahan Theater, 3rd floor of the Reynolds Club, May 16-18 at 8 p.m., and May 19 at 1 p.m.