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What Becomes of a Broken Artist? 

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ARTIST DESCENDING A STAIRCASE

Body Politic Theatre

In 1912 Marcel Duchamp painted his famous Nude Descending a Staircase, a breakthrough study of the body in motion. Nude broke its subject into a series of chronological steps, almost like separate film frames superimposed on each other. By trying to reproduce motion itself, Nude questioned the way painters and photographers freeze life into a frame--and thus ignore its messy context.

In drama, the movement is almost always chronological. Not so, however, in Artist Descending a Staircase, a captivating 1972 play by Tom Stoppard in a richly mined local premiere at the Body Politic Theatre. Like Duchamp's masterpiece or a print by Escher, Artist fragments its subjects--three artists and the woman with whom they're obsessed--by taking them back into their pasts.

Anticipating other time-machine plays like Pinter's Betrayal and David Hare's Plenty, Artist reverses course in order to show how pivotal moments in the characters' past haunt their present, how the despair of artists injured by love makes them want to crowd life out of their creations.

Its 11 scenes cover nearly 60 years. The first six move backward from 1972 to 1914, each scene a flashback from the one that precedes it. The last five move forward, each scene picking up where it had left off in the spooling- back process.

It seems complicated, but Stoppard writes these symmetrical, dovetailing scenes so forcefully and with such telling detail that it's easy to connect the splintered halves. And the further the action recedes, the better we see later events, including a possible murder and a suicide.

The opening scene, in an attic studio in 1972, at first plays like a mixture of murder mystery and La boheme. Donner, the "artist" of the title, has just died after a fall down a staircase. Beauchamp and Martello, old friends and fellow artists who shared the studio with Donner, suspect each other of abetting the accident.

The only evidence comes from Beauchamp's tape recorder. Beauchamp, a "tonal artist" who has abandoned visual images to pursue the purity of sound, runs his machine constantly to record the random noise around him. ("Our first duty as artists is to capture the radio station" he says --ironically, because Stoppard originally wrote Artist for BBC radio; a stage version premiered in London in 1988.) The tape recorder--which like the play itself can be rewound and replayed--has captured the sounds of Donner's death.

As the scenes rewind, we come closer and closer to glimpsing the cause not just of one man's demise, but of the creative stagnation that afflicts all three artists. Donner, disillusioned by the irrelevance of art to human need, in 1972 is reduced to fabricating edible art, like a Michelangelo miniature made of sugar; his answer to world hunger is "Let them eat art." The soft-spoken Martello, wary of "mental acrobatics," contents himself with sculpting an aggressively metaphorical bust of a woman with straw hair and teeth made from fake pearl. Beauchamp, of course, is stuck trying to pass off aimless audio art as something vital.

At its furthest recession--to 1914--Artist delightfully depicts the innocence that precedes this enervation. The three friends are on a walking tour of France when their excursion is rudely interrupted by the arrival of World War I. But the men doggedly ignore the carnage, as if to show how little artists heed the world around them.

Yet all three certainly heed Sophie Farthingale, the blind "muse" who will inspire all their later work. Before she lost her sight, Sophie had seen the young artists' first show, "Frontiers in Art," done when the three were bolder and cocksure that expertise matters less than inspiration. Despite their contrived artistic naivete, Sophie came to love their work, and one artist in particular, without having met them. Shortly after, illness made her blind.

When she finally meets Martello, Donner, and Beauchamp, they fall in love with the beautiful and vulnerable blind girl. But Sophie doesn't know which voice goes with the face she adored; she can only discover the artist she loves by describing the photo that showed him standing before one of his paintings.

Her description seems to favor Beauchamp. He and Sophie live together in Lambeth, but he moves out a year later when things aren't going well. Afraid of the "real darkness" that suddenly surrounds her, Sophie panics and a disaster follows. The memory of her "tragic defenestration" will stalk the artists through the rest of their careers.

But it's not just Sophie's end that disturbs them. Though she's not an artist, the sensitive blind girl demonstrated a capacity for pure inspiration that eludes her talented lovers. Free of the visual world (except for her memory of a photo), Sophie embodied in her life the ideal they sought in vain on canvas. (Equally threatening is the fact that Sophie preferred the Pre-Raphaelites to the modernists; only blind faith sustained the latter, she believed, in their failing vision.)

The play ends when the truth about Donner's death is suddenly revealed, in a famous line from King Lear. The real mystery, it turns out, is not Donner's death but the way that Sophie's life has persisted in the hearts and work of three elderly artists.

Artist is no 90-minute time trick concocted by a show-off; Stoppard's multilayered puzzle play is a vehicle for speculation on the uneasy relationship of art to life, the dubious value of any creation that cuts itself off from that life, and modern art's debilitatingly small demands on an artist's skill.

As always, Stoppard's bravura wit and brilliant construction are immensely satisfying. But by its end, Artist is also surprisingly moving. Because Stoppard artfully omits all the life between the play's scenes, the audience is forced to fill in the context, just as Duchamp's painting fills in what art usually ignores. That requires an emotional investment, but it pays off splendidly.

Fully felt and well paced, the Body Politic production is cleverly framed by Kent Goetz's set, with its deceptive, Magritte-like window and blue sky; it even has one of Magritte's famous levitating chairs. Mark P. Radziejeski's lighting deftly turns the stage warm or cold as needed.

If the eye is fooled in Joseph Sadowski's cunning staging, the mind is happy to be dazzled. Sadowski has fleshed out the stories with tender loving care (the English accents are impeccable). You can almost hear the clicks as Stoppard's marvelous invention falls neatly into place.

Larry Brandenburg as Beauchamp nicely discriminates between his character's hearty younger self and the older but not wiser artist who officiously seeks his own dead end. Self- effacing but not pallid, James McCance suggests how deep Martello's still waters really run. As the feisty neotraditionalist Donner, Donald Brearley quivers with prickly defensiveness, then lets his defenses collapse when he makes a terrible final discovery.

In a generous performance--Sophie almost seems to glow in her own personal dark--Johanna McKay reveals both the idealized Sophie the men enshrine and the achingly real blind girl they ignored at her peril. When Sophie delightedly shows how well she can pour and serve tea, the scene has the resonance of an idealized memory, not an everyday occurrence. It's easy to imagine McKay's radiant Sophie haunting three men for half a century. As Freud said, an unfinished task is never forgotten.

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