Thursday, August 24, 2017

Casey Ross' 'Gallery' trilogy, each part having premiered at IndyFringe Featival, is mounted and framed with 'Canvas'

Triangulated: "Canvas"'s Afton Shepard, Davey Pelsue, and Dave Ruark
 The unveiling of a work of art climaxes "Canvas" after practically everything else about a small knot of friends, kin, and lovers has been unraveled.

Casey Ross' scarifying drama in the 2017 Fringe Festival rounds out a trilogy whose predecessors — "Gallery" and "Portraits"— premiered at the 2007 and 2014 festivals, respectively. Synopses of the new play's companion pieces are helpfully available in the program for "Canvas." Having not seen "Gallery" and "Portraits," my discombobulation during the first few scenes of "Canvas" was only temporary.

Canvas is the traditional surface on which paintings are made, and, significantly, also what covers the floor of a boxing ring. "Canvas" is a knockdown, drag-out fight, an unruly strongman competition centered in a stifling corner of the art world. Everybody's back touches canvas violently at some point. Conversations are fraught with embedded emotions and intimate histories. They resemble "the conversation with the flying plates / I wish I were in love again" of the evergreen Rodgers-and-Hart song. With love, if you can't stand the punch-ups, you ain't got game.

Love tussles animate the key relationship here: that between Frank Burnem, the wizardly master of everything he turns his hand to, and his intensely dependent but sexually conflicted admirer, the painter Jackson Bell. Scott Miller, proprietor of a restaurant patronized by young artists, represents the uncomplicated side of Frank's gay identity. As both artist and man, Jackson is cathected upon Frank, having caused the dissolution of his marriage to Monica, a member of the old art-school gang all now struggling to find themselves in art and life. Frank's brother Martin is at the far edge of this circle, repeatedly crossing his low disgust threshold.

Ross is an efficient playwright, having constructed her play of short scenes snipped apart by blackouts on Theatre on the Square's Stage II. Consequently, saying much even about the early scenes risks violating the spoiler taboo. Every scene tells. There's not a wasted word, it seems, despite the f-word carpet-bombing early on. The style, ramped up to the nth degree under the direction of Adam Tran, draws on the rapid-fire rancidness of Harold Pinter dialogue, but without the pauses.

Freedom the real subject: "Bad Times" by Philip Guston (1970)
As Jackson, Davey Pelsue will have your palms sweating. Jackson's neediness outdoes anyone else's, though Dave Ruark, in a keenly modulated performance, shrewdly indicates just how trapped Frank feels by his very virtuosity. Anything that approaches genius has its own dead ends. Both artists are fighting for their freedom, and they flail more than a little.

Shortly before he died in 1980, the painter Philip Guston described the generally negative reaction a decade earlier to his drastic switch from first-generation abstract expressionism (a label he hated) toward figurative work often populated by hooded figures evoking Klansmen. Among his few champions at the opening of a 1970 show marking the change was his friend Willem de Kooning, who said: "Why are they all complaining about you making political art, all this talk? You know what your real subject is. It's about freedom, to be free, the artist's first duty."

Conceived as a duty, freedom is an illusory ideal that imposes a heavy burden on artists and everyone around them. All the performances in "Canvas" flesh out this truth vividly: Matt Walls embodies the outsider/insider dichotomy as brother Martin, Nathan Thomas reflects Scott's wry appreciation of his precarious relationship to Frank, and Afton Shepard, who looks like the sort of ice-princess blonde Alfred Hitchcock favored in casting his heroines, brought an individualized intensity to the role that, when needed, matched everyone else's.

The first and last words of "Canvas" are "Art." That may be the ultimate spoiler. Let this also be my spoiler alert.