TheatreVirginia's "Art" and the Barksdale's "Misfits" ask questions about art and history, and come up with provocative answers. 

"Art" vs. Artifice

A world-famous sex symbol, lying naked on a bed. An innocuous white-on-white painting bought for thousands of dollars. These are the intriguing and attention-grabbing images that launch the first two plays opening in Richmond this year. And while they are dramatically different, these scene-setting devices share at least one characteristic: Neither one is what it appears to be. Take the first scene in the Barksdale Theatre's production of "Misfits," which opens with Marilyn Monroe asleep in a Reno, Nev., hotel room. You might think a nude sex goddess would be a titillating turn-on. But according to Jeanne Boisineau, the actress playing Monroe, "[this play] isn't about the 'Candle in the Wind' Marilyn. This is the down-and-dirty, last-resort Marilyn." The play chronicles a day on the set of Monroe's last movie, "Misfits," which her husband, playwright Arthur Miller, wrote specifically for her. At this point in her life, Monroe was strung out on drugs, her marriage was falling apart, and her emotions were growing more extreme. Instead of the beautiful, flirtatious movie star, you'll see a desperate, depressed, malicious, sometimes foul-mouthed shrew. Though Boisineau does not relish spending most of her time on stage with little or no clothes on, she says, "It may be more difficult for the audience than for me." The veteran actress says the raw emotions that are exposed are the real attraction of the play, which was meticulously researched by former Richmonder Alex Finlayson. "It's such a personal story, you get a much better understanding of who these people really were," says Boisineau. "It's like putting your eye to the keyhole of the hotel room and spying on what is going on." And as for working without clothing, Boisineau's ultimate attitude is wryly practical. "At least I don't have any costume changes to worry about," she says, laughing. Barksdale's Artistic Director Randy Strawderman has been interested in "Misfits" since its inception more than five years ago. Finlayson is an established playwright in England, and she was commissioned to create the play by the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. The result was an epic production with 28 characters that focused much more on the shooting of the movie. "There was some stunning stuff in the script," says Strawderman, "but when Alex came back to Richmond, she had mixed feelings about it. She told me she was thinking about rewriting it into a smaller play." When he was putting together his current season, Strawderman tracked down the playwright in San Diego and discovered she had rewritten it. Strawderman says that with the new, seven-character version, Finlayson shows an "implicit understanding of Marilyn Monroe's soul. … The thing that makes it work so well is that you see these people not as they are on the silver screen, but as vulnerable people. To find the human beings in these icons, it's really a courageous thing for an actor to take on." For Boisineau, the acting challenge was less of a struggle than her reservations about a play that assumes knowledge about real events. "I have a problem with people supposing what happened without ever really knowing; it's always seemed irresponsible to me. But Alex did an amazing amount of work. Nothing is in the play that hasn't been said." Through her own research into Monroe's life, Boisineau has gained an appreciation for the tragic star and her troubles. "She was a delightful child," says Boisineau. "But she had this huge fear of abandonment and of going crazy. As she got older, she got better at masking what was going on." The three characters in the other play opening this week - "Art" at TheatreVirginia - are all masking their emotions to some extent. But any suppression of their true feelings is abandoned when Serge, a self-styled art maven, pays an outrageous sum for a painting that appears to be blank. His friend Marc, who fancies himself an art critic, thinks Serge has been ripped off. The two men turn to their mutual friend Yvan for help, only to be given more fuel for an argument that escalates to hilarious and harrowing heights. Though it is at the center of the play's action, the seemingly nondescript painting in "Art" is really just a launching point for an exploration of the meaning and purposes of both art and friendship, according to TVa's Artistic Director George Black. "The play says that people tend to use art to say something about themselves," says Black. "In the end, people don't want to talk about the art itself; they want to talk about who they are." Unlike "Misfits," which will have its American premiere at the Barksdale, "Art" comes to TVa after celebrated productions around the world, including the 1998 Tony Award-winning show on Broadway. Though certainly beloved by audiences, the play has also become a favorite of top-flight actors - including the likes of Alan Alda, Albert Finney and Judd Hirsch — who savor the chance to portray the sophisticated and intelligent characters playwright Yasmina Reza created. Black says that "Art" has prompted a response that he is familiar with: "With a play like this, actors you haven't heard from in a while, you suddenly start hearing from them." Black says that, even with its awards and acclaim, "Art" has an unusual structure that resulted in a Broadway production that was "clumsily staged." He explains that "the play's structure is rather cinematic where time and place change instantly. On Broadway, all the scenes ended in blackouts with stagehands moving things around in between." Black has sought to overcome this challenge by "taking on the world of the play; it's a theatrical world. I hope to make [the transitions] seamless." Whether or not Black can solve the play's structure puzzles, the Richmond production of "Art" will be unique because of where it will be presented, in TVa's theater space within the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Tours of some galleries - particularly those with minimalist works — will be given before performances. "Though I think that the subject of art is not the most critical one [in the play]," says Black. "When people go through the museum the next time, it is going to have an effect on them."

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