at the Pavo Center for the Arts
The walls of the artist's studio are covered with religious icons--crucifixes and Madonnas. Mounted above them is a large painting that depicts the planet earth hanging in a black canvas universe. The scent of sandalwood is in the air. Poised on a round table at the center of the studio is a beautiful model (Jane Jensen) who asks the artist (Doug Friedman) to tell her a story. Music trickles like rain while he tells her about his genesis as an artist. Ah, Paris . . .
Everything about the beginning of Mother Universe points to an evening of self-indulgent reflection on the nature of artists and art: the carefully nonchalant nudity, the artist's paint-smeared bicep and slicked-back hair, the model's brittle youth. Thankfully, playwright-director Jim Marcus has something a little more intriguing in mind, though the topic he's chosen is just as broad.
The artist, Martin, tells a tale about his sexy encounter with an earthy woman/goddess (Susan Lindenbaum) who set free his stifled artistic impulses, thus acting as his creator. He then destroyed her in a jealous fit and set himself up in her place, as an artist responsible for his own creation. This story, acted out for the most part through shadow play on a scrim, sets the tone of the play, which takes on all of Creation and the age-old question: Who the hell's responsible for It, anyway?
A brief blackout follows Martin's story, and in the next scene Martin and the model reverse roles. He has his shirt off and she is fully clothed; she's the artist, the reasonable, competent person, and he's the model, childlike and passionate. He describes the previous scene to her as though it were a dream he'd had, while she pastes together a collage of people cut from magazines. He doesn't understand her work, and she admits that she's not sure she understands it herself. The allegory begins to assert itself more clearly: Man, who has credited the creation of the universe to a masculine presence, has been laboring under a delusion all this time, just as Martin's dream of control is an illusion. Ultimately the nature of the universe is feminine, and the Goddess is puzzling over Creation even as she fashions it.
In the next scene, however, the woman is gone and Martin is in the role of artist once more. All of his work focuses on traditional Christian themes, and all of it is dwarfed by the painting of the earth. We can't be sure whether this situation is a dream or not. His works certainly come to life in a dreamlike manner. A life-size naked Christ (Clay Cousins) screeches for help from his garishly colored cross. A marble Madonna (Meghan Strell) attempts to sacrifice her stone child and finds that she cannot.
No distinction is made between dream and reality in Mother Universe. Martin seems to have no better grasp of his own identity than the audience does; it's possible that he is, in fact, Christ. He seems to dream of searching for his mother, of selling his work, of betrayal by an agent, of death. They are all dreams that Christ might have, but in the playwright's mind the important question is: Who dreamed Christ? Where is the earth mother who gave birth to him, and did he turn on her as Martin turned on his lover/creator in the story he told at the top of the play?
Everything about this production makes us feel as though we're in the grip of a slow hallucination. The lighting is acid-dropping psychedelic--enough to disorient but not enough to cause a headache. The young actors are a little naive, prone to push for emotion in some cases; but they are completely committed and tour the stage with dreamy deliberation. Particularly fascinating is Strell as the Madonna statue: she seems to stop breathing at times, her eyes glittering in an otherwise tranquil face.
The allegory, when it's not downright confusing, tends to be a little clumsy. Marcus has tackled an epic-size topic, then given himself very little time to explore it. It's not easy to disassemble Christianity and set up a pagan mother in its place in an hour and a half. Luckily Marcus knows what he's doing as a director, and always provides something interesting to look at and think about even if the meaning isn't immediately evident. His staging is so fluid that it's hard to fault him for wanting to take on the world.