Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Picturesd at An Exhibition"

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note: entire contents copyright 1998 by Larry Stark

"Pictures at An Exhibition"

by Michael Bettencourt
Directed by Joe Antoun

Set Design by Jason Jeff Gardiner
Lighting Design by Karen Perlow
Sound Design by Derek Holbrook
Stage Combat Jennifer Brown
Stage Manager JulieAnn Wilks

Margaret Pasqualini....................................Elizabeth Duff
Vera Cortez..................................................Jacqui Parker
Matthew Pasqualini.................................Douglas A. Flynn
Reporter, Judge, Customer...........................Peg Holzemer
Radio Caller, Police Officer.......................E Grace Noonan
Asst. D.A., Lab Tech, Reporter.......................Sarah Parker
Radio Host, Police Officer.............................Michael Ricca
Attorney John Twyman, News Anchor...George Saulnier III
Flash Gunn.....................................................Newell Young

Michael Bettencourt's "Pictures at An Exhibition" is powerfully acted and clearly directed, but is not yet a finished play. Instead each act is a sketch for a play, and in its present form each of them would rather be a movie. The work starts with real situations found in real newspaper accounts, and controversey over that aspect of Bettancourt's methods of making theater may have obscured the potent potentialities of a script still in progress. Since that is true --- and since I know nothing of the background stories or the controversies about them --- I'm going to treat it as a work-in-progress; a work I hope turns into a real stage-play some day.

In the CentaStage production at the BCA directed by Joe Antoun, the second act is a two-character prison play pitting a poor Black woman, serving 20 years for complicity in her own child's death, against an intellectual White woman serving 30 days for uppity disorderly conduct out of liberal principles. The first act outlines how the liberal got in jail --- defending her right to take nude pictures of her four-year-old son that people thought pornographic rather than artistic.

This obviously simplifies both acts almost out of existence, because each one raises and wrestles with the serious implications of each situation in deeply felt dialog wherein every character, however briefly onstage, has a ring of authenticity, and most are committed to real issues. The fact that there is so much here already makes it all the more regrettable that there is still so much unfinished.

Jacqui Parker as Cortez (Black) and Elizabeth Duff as Margaret (White) fill their shared jail cell with vibrant electricity as they define their individualities and grudgingly trust one another with their secrets. Cortez maintains that "You're in MY space. You're here thirty days --- slummin'! I been here a long time 'fore you came, I got a lot of time left after you're gone." Margaret cites her time teaching in the barrios to justify her attempts at empathy. The air between them crackles with self-justified resentment. Neither woman relaxes for an instant.

But time is against them. Twenty-six of their days together vanish into a scene-change, and suddenly they are sharing confidences never told to anyone else. It is more the excellent acting than the smooth evolution of their mutual involvement that makes this act work. Were this the entire play, that smooth evolution would need fleshing out with more incident, and perhaps a small victory or two for the White interloper.

But the final resolution of their conflict returns Margaret to the outside, visiting as a photographer --- a committed artist trying to use what she learned about life while inside that cell to dignify her sisters still inside. And for that to work, the first act attempts to set up background information.

There are details here that feel authentic. Margaret's mind has come alive through a course in photography and she has a vision of herself as a serious artist, while her husband (Douglas A Flynn) is a cabinet-maker who would prefer she stay a wife and mother. Their son is mute and so needs extra care, though he is loved by both parents. Margaret was trying to illuminate her love for the boy in a set of nude studies, but the photo-lab saw them as salacious. And, despite publicity or maybe because of it, what is a committed artist to do when her art is under attack but to resist arrest violently enough to spend a month in the clink for her art?

These scenes, mostly brief, are as quick and as scattered as the prison scenes are lengthy. The child his parents bathe is absent here, and his presence merely mimed. That does reflect the fact that he is mute, and it allows the audience to imagine his beauty and his innocence in a way no real child could project on stage --- though a good director and a great casting-director might make him real on film. The talk-show arguments and press-frenzy scenes and conferences with a lawyer (George Saulnier III) and bits of courtroom trial would all seem less clunky if they were a montage instead of a series of short tight-spotlight scenes. (Though it is true that Jason Jeff Gardiner's sets and Karen Perlow's lights worked wonders at the BCA, even these efficient and silent scene-changes are no match for jump-cuts on celluloid.)

I do think that a lot of what is now in act one must have been discussed by these two women during those missing 26 days. I bet if Michael Bettancourt let these two powerful woman talk to each other at length they would write his play for him, and that when they were all three done they wouldn't need a flashback or a jump-cut to make their story work.

But there it stands, so far: two fascinating, engaging, involving, excellently acted plays, neither of which feels finished, neither of which feels comfortable with the restrictions of even excellent staging --- and both of them too short and unfinished because the other snatches away time needed for full development of so many good ideas. I hope some day they can become one powerful stage play.


"Pictures at An Exhibition" (till 23 May)
Boston Center for The Arts, 539 Tremont Street, BOSTON

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