Saturday, July 17, 2010

Florentine Facades?

Florentine Facades?

By Tom Wachunas

Art historian Kenneth Clark once called Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa “the submarine goddess of the Louvre.” Yes, the portrait of twenty-four-year-old Lisa del Giocondo, stunning wife of a 16th century Florentine merchant, is cracked with age and now clouded, it would seem, by a pervasive greenish hue, all encased in glass that many say resembles an aquarium. Yet the painting continues to not so much speak directly as it beckons us to wonder. In all of this, then - from the legendary eyes that follow and the otherworldly background landscape that is the embodiment of mystery itself, to its dozens of layers of masterfully concocted softening, translucent glazes - the painting remains a strangely opaque gem, silent as to “the secret behind the enigmatic smile,” if in fact there is one to uncover.

And so it is in that regard that “Mona Lisa,” a new work by screenwriter and playwright Ron Burch, is historical fiction - an exercise in speculation. The play, which opened for three performances on July 16, is directed here by Mark Monday, and is the second of three world-premiere plays in the New Play Conservatory, presented in the Canton Players Guild’s William G. Fry Arena Theatre.

Burch presents us with a conflicted da Vinci. First, there’s the moody genius given to fits of arrogance, self-pity, and anxiety over where his next meal may be coming from. Yet he’d rather go hungry than resort to accepting portrait commissions, regarding them as trivial wastes of his time and talents. Then, there is the da Vinci who’s never intimately known a woman, and who falls in love with his client’s wife, Lisa. She reciprocates eagerly, as we learn how her marriage to Francesco was a cruel fiasco from the start.

As da Vinci, Dave Osso is most notably effective when he’s sarcastic and cranky. His crafting of other moments, though (including when his boyish infatuation turns to full-fledged love), seems relatively lackluster. Similarly, Amy Crawford, playing Lisa del Giocondo, is the epitome of Renaissance ‘grazia’ through most of the proceedings. Yet when she describes her deep pain over her marital situation, she does so with perhaps too much graceful detachment, undermining the pathos and depth of her story. Methinks she smiles too much, even if she is in love.

It’s somewhat ironic that the performances with the most definition and weight here are delivered in the “secondary” roles: Grayden B. Provance as da Vinci’s nervously funny servant, Salai; Tom Bryant as the gruff and cocky Francesco del Giocondo; and Leland T. Pettis as the delightfully blustery and authoritarian Pietro Soderini. Whereas the main roles unfold with a lulling sameness of energy (not unlike the patina that has clouded da Vinci’s painting), these are delivered with remarkably crisp color and gusto.

I suspect that the evening’s weaknesses are more in the area of directing and performing than in the literature. There’s just enough emotional information imparted by the script to encourage the expectation of a more visceral theatrical experience, but it doesn’t consistently materialize on stage.

What does materialize, though, is a kind of pithy charm. This is, at its heart, a love story, and a bittersweet one at that. In the end no one gets the girl. But, cracks and all, we’ll always have her smile.

New Play Conservatory at the Players Guild William G. Fry Arena Theatre, located in the Cultural Center for the Arts, 1001 Market Ave. North, Canton, Ohio. All performances at 8p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30p.m. Sundays, Tickets $10. Call (330) 453 – 7617.
Next up: “Then Waves,” by Kevin Kautzman, directed by Craig Joseph, July 23 – 25 (violence and adult language).

Photo: Leonardo da Vinci self portrait in chalk, circa 1515

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