8/3/2019         SLAYING HOLOFERNES                                  Essential Theatre

         
ART AND CONTRIVANCE

 

Emily McClain has written a powerful argument for the #MeToo movement with Slaying Holofernes, a compelling piece that parallels a modern Atlanta woman facing sexual harassment on the job, with the Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi (whose Judith Slaying Holofernes gives the play its title and recurring image), who faced torture and censure when she accused her art tutor of raping her.  Ms. McClain makes the comparisons valid, vividly brings her then/now parallel themes to life and concludes with a powerfully theatrical moment.  I can’t help but think, though, that a more nuanced approach to her “bad-to-the-core” villains would have made a stronger case, even looking deeper into the complexities of harassment, than the oil-painting thin piece of advocacy on view here.

 

Amanda is a young Data Analysis at an Atlanta tech company.  She is supremely competent, even saving the company from a potentially devastating security oversight.  But she is a bit of an introvert, preferring her own company to that of her party-hearty co-workers.  When she attracts the attention of Anthony, a middle manager with a direct tie the boss, she agrees to see him socially, which, of course, he takes far too far.  So, when a merger requires some sacrifice, Amanda’s job is eliminated.  The reason given is that she “doesn’t fit in with corporate culture,” but she can’t help but wonder if it’s because she wouldn’t sleep with Anthony.

Meanwhile, back in 1610, Artemisia Gentileschi is a young painter of remarkable talent and vision.  She is even beginning to overshadow her tutor, Agostino Tasso, who mistakes her youthful respect and adoration for something more mature.  When she accuses him of copying her work, he gets defensive, proposes marriage, and, when she refuses, rapes her.  Artemisia’s father, Orazio Gentileschi, eventually brings Tasso to court, where the trial eventually becomes focused on Artemisia’s virtue and actions.

 

In both stories, the men are in a position of power and their lies are automatically accepted as truth.  Both women are accused of fabricating their stories, or instigating the incidents, or simply misinterpreting innocent repartee.  In both stories, the women are explicitly innocent victims, the men untrustworthy liars.  And yet, it’s Amanda who must face the “grilling” by a “Kangaroo Court” of corporate lawyers and HR personnel, and it’s Artemisia who must prove the trustworthiness of her story by voluntarily submitting to thumbscrew torture.

 

Because this is, in effect, two plays woven together, the staging requires many elaborate scene changes to switch from one era to the era, punctuated by period-appropriate music, and stagehands seemingly garbed in costumes of both stories.  I’m not sure this was an optimal choice, as there are many many scenes, and the set-ups, which seemed basic and simple, probably added over 20 minutes to the overall running time,  I can’t help but wonder if a two-section stage in which both women can observe, perhaps even interact with, each other’s stories would have given the pacing more punch, and the interconnectedness more immediacy. 

 

The performances here are all of peak quality with Sasha Hatfield giving Artemisia a fire and passion that perfectly reflects the art we see her create.  Erika Miranda gives Amanda a focused intensity as well as a palpable sense of humor that really REALLY makes us disgusted at how she is treated on the job.  As the men, Fred Galyean is perfectly vile as Tasso, visibly jealous at the talent of his student, lustful in his approach to her innocence.  His lies are so heartfelt, I often wondered if he believed them himself.  As Anthony, Jeff Hathcoat is all smarmy charm, and is even likable, approachable, until he is denied what he thinks is his by virtue of his status and position.  Then he becomes full-on creepy cruel, and he makes the transition work. (He is also quite amusing as a foppish paint vendor in Artemisia’s trial sequence).  In other roles, Brad Brooks doubles as Artemisia’s Father, Orazio, and Amanda’s boss, Oscar, and is equally effective in both roles – one kind and supporting, the other not so much.  Other roles in both stories are filled by Sarah Wallace, Tamil Periasamy, Joey Davila, Dan Reichard, and Jim Nelson.

 

On the technical side, I have to give a distinct shout-out to Jane Kroessig’s costumes, which not only look great in both periods, but also obviously facilitate really fast changes from 1610 to 2010.  The set was functional, the lights a bit uneven (especially in the upstage areas), but the sound (Kacie Willis) and projections (Kimberly Binns) were beautifully selected and realized.

 

Slaying Holofernes, when all is said and painted, is a powerful piece of theatre, a reminder that #MeToo stories are once and forever, that gender preconceptions and “privileges” have not changed in 400 years.  It is also a nice introduction to a Renaissance painter whose very real talent has often been overlooked by her life story.  It is feast for your eyes, for your mind, and for your conscience.

 

     --  Brad Rudy   (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy   #EssentialTheatre  #SlayingHolofernes)

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