Soul on Sale | Upstream Theater

The saucy muse presents the artist with a vial of magic dust to conjure creativity. It’s a mite fey and childish. Will Tinkerbell be flitting through now?

 

Written and Directed By Philip Boehm
Friday, April 28, 2006

The courtyard where Upstream Theater staged Philip Boehm’s Soul on Sale was really the fourth character of the drama. This semi–open-air space within University City’s Lewis Center was cool from the spring night. The atrium was covered by a canopy of sorts, but at one point in the play, the patter of light rain made for a dull white noise behind the dialogue. The elements, the building’s ambient lighting, and the curious state of being outdoors-but-not-really made for a unique night of theater.

What’s more, Soul on Sale, set in an artist’s studio, was played in an artists’ studio. Washington University sculpture students use the area to hammer out their creations. This raw enclosure, with its dusty shelves, easel, battered worktable, and art-making bric-a-brac, really connoted a sense of the hard-working artist. The huge, ornate picture-frame sections that framed the “fourth wall” of the stage were smart and classy, too. The only problem with the space, from a theatergoer’s perspective, was the hard folding chairs, which left many in the audience shifting and squirming for relief by the end of the 85-minute drama.

Soul on Sale concerns a frustrated painter (Jerry Vogel) asked to create a passel of new works for a solo exhibition. He’s having trouble focusing, until he’s visited by an actual muse. Magan Wiles, in one of four roles she handles for the night, appears wearing an absurd mask ringed with black feathers like something from Eyes Wide Shut. The saucy muse presents the artist with a vial of magic dust to conjure creativity. It’s a mite fey and childish. Will Tinkerbell be flitting through now?

It was one of many problems with the piece. For instance, the play uses a fair bit of Spanish, and it isn’t translated for us gringos in the audience. There are jokes in Spanish that all of three people laughed at, while the rest of us were left with context clues. Also, there are logical gaps in the story. When the painter chats with the ghost of his dead mother, we wonder if she’s a “real” ghost or a figment. But when his art dealer (played by Don McClendon) sees the ghost, too, his reaction is the equivalent of “Gee—was that a ghost?” Nuh-uh. Seeing a ghost should prompt something in the neighborhood of, “Holy shit!” Instead, it’s a moment glossed over.

But the biggest problem here is the same problem that dogs Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile: It is not so much a work of art, as it is a lecture about art. Talking about transcendence is not the same as conferring transcendence. No matter how many times the painter offers up some pithy quote from a dead master, the words just lie there. Where is the action in this play? Why should we care about the painter? Why can’t we feel for him? It’s just the same for novels as it is for plays: Show, don’t tell. We need examples, action, and a sense of life lived—not merely a sense of life discussed.

Wiles offers a taste of relief when she appears as a mute model and the passionate muse, but this isn’t her story. This is about a tormented painter, and his demons are internal. Hearing his moans from the doldrums didn’t help us feel his sturm und drang. It was more like a mild fatigue.

Bright spots include a brief interval with an incongruously funny puppet show, and a live score by accomplished world musician Farshid Soltanshahi on various guitars and percussion instruments.

And that cool breeze that found its way into the atrium, delivering tiny little respites from a plodding story.

More information: Upstream Theater Web site

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