reviews – Caravaggio

I’m really proud of my scenic and lighting design for Caravaggio downtown at Silk Road Theatre Project. Its our second show in our beautiful new space in the Chicago Temple Building across from Daley Plaza. I’ll post a couple reviews below:

From Gay Chicago Magazine – reviewed by Venus Zarris

Silk Road Theatre Project delivers a stunning world premiere of Richard Vetere’s beautiful “Caravaggio.” This play dramatizes the turbulent life and career of the most revolutionary painter of the late 1600s-early 1700s, often credited as being the father of the Baroque. Passionate, at times violent and always unconventional, Caravaggio’s life and breathtaking work makes for the perfect subject of theatrical interpretation.

Opening with a striking sword fight, we immediately see Caravaggio as a volatile figure. Following it up with an intimate love scene between him and his male lover, we see him as breaking convention personally as well as artistically. Throughout the story, two things are evident: Caravaggio’s unparalleled artistic vision and his overpowering emotional chaos. He both loves and reviles the Catholic Church as he is heralded as a groundbreaking talent but criticized for his use of common people as inspiration for his Biblical renderings.

Director Dale Heinen compiles a gifted ensemble both on and off-stage to vividly bring this work to life. Lee Keenan’s remarkable lighting design adds much to the dramatic moods of the play and recreates some of Caravaggio’s masterpieces on stage with awe-inspiring effect. Cast members assume the positions of the painting’s figures while Keenan’s brilliant lighting accurately transforms the set and performers into a living, three-dimensional rendition of the magic created on the canvas. Robert Steel’s sound design and original music are splendid additions to the atmosphere and overall excellence of the work. He manages to utilize the ins and outs of every corner and crevice of the stage with ingenious sound placement.

The cast is confident and captivating. Brenda Barrie’s portrayal of Lena, Caravaggio’s prostitute-model-female love interest, is exceptionally engaging as she delivers the most compelling passion in her performance. Levi Petree is subtly intense as Francesco, Caravaggio’s male love interest. Ron Wells creates Carracci, Caravaggio’s rival painter, with wonderful brooding depth, and Don Blair’s Cardinal Del Monte adds biting wit and clever humor to the production. Mike Simmer’s Caravaggio looks the part and has strong scenes but lacks the dimension and overwhelming presence needed to fully realize the script’s lead. By and large, the performances, although at times a bit telegraphed, are excellent.

Despite the superb work and even astounding components to this production there is a deeper level of truth and intensity that somehow eludes the overall experience. Perhaps it is that Caravaggio’s original work is so transcending that it partially eclipses the peripheral elements of his dramatic life. Or perhaps there is a lack of focus as the script includes many elements but never fully satisfies the pieces that it dissects. Nonetheless, this is a bold and exceptional theatrical accomplishment that should not be missed by lovers of both art and theatre. (***)

(“Caravaggio” runs through November 26 at Silk Road Theatre Project, 77 W. Washington. 312-857-1234.)

Daily Herald
Caravaggio drama makes for solid theater
By Barbara Vitello

“Caravaggio” is a dissertation on faith disguised as a drama that
succeeds on both accounts.

Richard Vetere’s play about 16th-century Italian painter Michelangelo
Merisi Caravaggio covers familiar ground, posing theological questions
that have long troubled skeptics and believers alike. How does one
sustain faith? Why does an omnipotent deity allow his followers to
suffer? How does one reconcile belief in that ideal with the harsh,
painful reality of a world where hypocrisy, corruption and evil not only
exist but flourish?

At the same time, Vetere paints an intriguing portrait of a troubled
artist living a tumultuous life. Born in Milan in 1571, Caravaggio was
something of an “enfant terrible,” a volatile visionary who drank,
fought and painted extraordinary pictures defined by their realism and
the striking contrast between dark and light known as chiaroscuro, a
revolutionary technique at the time.

Besides the crisis of faith, “Caravaggio” also examines the conflict
between remaining true to one’s vision or bowing to convention.
The play’s talky at times, and some scenes serve more as a forum for a
debate on art and religion than as a way to move the narrative forward.
But it’s a solid piece of theater given a solid world premiere by
director Dale Heinen and the Silk Road Theatre Project. The intimate
production, which unfolds on Lee Keenan’s sumptuous, burnished set,
features projections of the artist’s paintings and has an autumnal look
thanks to Keenan’s evocative lighting that recreates the luminosity and
chiaroscuro of Caravaggio’s paintings.

This condensed account of Caravaggio’s final years isn’t history.
Writers play with facts and timelines. Vetere suggests Caravaggio (a
passionate performance by Mike Simmer who reveals the progressive man
behind the troubled artist) was tortured for questioning religious
doctrine. He also addresses the painter’s sexuality, referencing affairs
with his friend and companion Francesco (Levi Petree) and his
mistress/model Lena (a playful, insightful performance from Brenda
Barrie as the prostitute consigned to “the garden of evil, the
anti-Eden”). True or not, those incidents serve to illuminate the
character of this enigmatic artist and compelling protagonist: His
unwillingness to compromise; his refusal to idealize his subjects and
his use of prostitutes, peddlers and hustlers as models for religious
figures; not to mention his religious struggle. And that makes for good
theater.

The action begins in 1606 Rome with a petty dispute between Caravaggio
(a frequent brawler) and another man, which results in that man’s death.
At the urging of his patron, the politic and artistically astute
Cardinal del Monte (Don Blair, very good as the sly sensualist who knows
survival demands manipulation and accommodation), Caravaggio flees for
Malta. He is welcomed by Alof de Wignacourt (played by Sean Sinitski
with a combination of menace and arrogance), leader of a group of
knights and a convert whose zeal has made him a tyrant. Wignacourt is an
admirer but upon discovering the painter’s “heresy,” he assumes the role
of savior of the artist’s soul and subjects him to the rack. Meanwhile,
the cardinal petitions the pope on behalf of Carvaggio, offering to
intervene in some financial matters if the pontiff grants his request
for a pardon.

The stronger second act finds Caravaggio back in Italy where he’s
sheltered by fellow painter Carracci (the excellent Ron Wells), a
conformist whose wealth and success comes from adhering to convention.
Carracci emerges as a kind of Salieri to Caravaggio’s Amadeus. Carracci
is the consummate public servant, producing pleasant but forgettable art
that pleases political leaders. His art anesthetizes, while Caravaggio’s
stimulates and inspires. Caravaggio, not Carracci, is the genius and
Wells incredibly subtle performance suggests Carracci knows this. The
pain and disappointment that play across Well’s face as Carracci
realizes he lacks his colleague’s greatness say more than any line of
dialogue. Wells makes his torment palpable in one of the play’s best
performances.

Simmer also deserves praise for his performance as a man who recognizes
his talent as a gift from God but finds himself unable to reconcile his
gratitude for the gift with the ambivalence he feels toward the deity
who bestowed it.
“Faith doesn’t guide my hand,” he says, “my questions do.”

Even to the eloquent finale, a poignantly written scene that finds
Caravaggio consumed by sadness from having his most profound questions
go unanswered, yet resolves to do what he must: embrace the light.

Three and a half stars out of four