A Brave Exhibition on Display at Villanova: Tina Howe’s MUSEUM

by Ellen Wilson Dilks

L. to R.--Michael Jansen as The Guard, Ahren Potratz as Jean-Claude and Felicia Leicht as Francoise in Villanova Theatre's production of MUSEUM. (Photos courtesy of Villanova Theatre)

Written in 1976, Tina Howe’s MUSEUM takes place on the final day of a group show of three fictitious contemporary American artists: a conceptual painter who puts white paint on white canvasses (pre Yasmina Reza’s ART), a sculptor who uses organic materials (including animal skeletons) and an artist whose soft-sculpture construction consists of five life-sized dummies that are hung on a clothesline. They are being exhibited in a major museum of modern art in an unnamed large metropolis and, in the course of the day, the usual suspects walk through the show: art lovers, skeptics, foreigners, students, lost souls, fellow artists and, of course, museum guards. Ms. Howe is exploring the effect of art on the viewer; she is concerned with showing how our reactions to a piece of art say as much about the viewer (and human nature)as the do the work on display—and she’s getting in a few laughs along the way.

The play was first staged at the Los Angeles Actors Theatre in 1976 and was then performed at the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1977. No typical plot structure for this 80 minute comedy. Instead, MUSEUM unfolds in a montage of events and moments that are deftly layered onto each other to create a comic soufflé. Ms. Howe is a gifted playwright, best known for “Coastal Disturbances” and “Painting Churches”. She is witty and smart, and has a wonderful time in this piece poking fun at the denizens of America’s museums, the pseudo-intellectuals, the Nuevo-intellectuals, the dilettantes…

Howe has titled her fictitious art show “The Broken Silence”—an editorial comment on the many snippets of talk the audience hears as some 40 people pass thru the exhibit. That’s right, you read that correctly—40 people. According to Howe’s author’s note, it is her hope “that any group wanting to present MUSEUM uses the large cast size as a challenge and not as a restriction.”  Director Joanna Rotté has heartily embraced that challenge, casting 41 actors that range in age from 18 to 76. The Villanova Theatre Department professor’s ensemble includes current students, alumni, faculty and staff—and possibly some passersby from out on Lancaster Avenue, who knows.

The thought of the logistics involved in coordinating this production gives me palpitations. At times there are close to a dozen entrances and exits within moments of each other. Other moments require at least 10 actors to be moving through the exhibits. The Vasey’s layout lends itself well to this and Parris Bradley’s set design thoroughly places the viewer as a fly on the wall in a contemporary museum gallery. Rotté keeps things flowing briskly throughout the space and has elicited finely painted performances from her many actors. To single any one member of this ensemble out would be unfair—everyone contributes solid work to the piece. There are wonderful little bits of business throughout.  The only character who is onstage throughout the play is the poor hapless museum guard who is trying to maintain proper decorum—totally unsuccessfully, of course. Michael Jansen is pitch-perfect in the role.

To make things even more interesting, Ms. Rotté commissioned three local artists, who work in styles similar to those of the play’s characters, to create original works for the onstage exhibit. Lawrence Anastasi, Heather McLaughlin and Ward Van Haute have invented wonderful works for the production—which the audience is invited to take a closer look at following each performance. The artists also make “guest appearances” towards the end of the play as their fictional counterparts. The three artists pieces are interesting, and in very different mediums from each other. They are “installed” beautifully in the faux gallery. As I waited for the performance to start, I enjoyed examining each one from a modest distance.  [I was unable to stay after the performance, but many audience members did.]

Janus Stefanowicz’s costuming is hilarious; the ensembles she has created for each character speaks volumes about them the moment they hit the stage. Stefanowicz splashes iconic images onstage with her choices, using every color on her palette—sometimes all on one person. Jerrold Forsythe has devised a supremely believable lighting design that evokes the right museum look and highlights the various playing spaces wonderfully. And Parris Bradley’s soundscape artfully evokes the emotions needed at a given moment.

It was exceedingly entertaining watching this pastiche of personalities float in and out of the gallery; one couldn’t wait to see what would come next. Howe’s observations of human nature are hilariously on point. Things take a surprising turn at the end of the play, which I really wasn’t expecting. But, it’s always nice to be caught off-guard, though. I highly recommend spending some time in this unique MUSEUM to chase away the winter blahs.

by Tina Howe
Directed by Joanna Rotté
Villanova Theatre-Vasey Hall
800 E. Lancaster Avenue
February 7-19, 2012

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