Self-Portrait as Schiele
nytheatre.com review by Jon Stancato
August 16, 2008
I adore the work of Egon Schiele, the 19th century Austrian expressionist known for his contorted, erotic, limby grotesques and for a life cut too short by a fatal case of influenza. TheatreMeme's new play, Self Portrait as Schiele, frequently delights with staging motifs cribbed right from Schiele canvasses. But director Gerritt Turner's painterly stage pictures, presented by some memorable performers and accompanied by an immersive sound and lighting design, simply cannot ground Mark Lindberg's frustrating hallucinatory script.
Lindberg's story begins in the studio of Madchen (Elsa Carette), a disheveled young artist living in New York, as she writes a letter to someone named Elvira, telling her, with anticipation, about an upcoming exhibition. Shortly after Madchen finishes writing, she hears a knock at her door. It is Egon Schiele (Doug Paulson), a prospective figure model she has met at the Neue Galerie. It is, frankly, inconceivable that a visual artist who counts the Neue Galerie (singularly devoted to works by Schiele and his Austro-German contemporaries) among her haunts and is, by her own description, working on angular contorted nude portraits, would be unfamiliar with Schiele's name—and this lapse is unfortunately symptomatic of the playwright's broader lack of investment in creating a world populated by people that feel "real," whether they are turn-of-the-century Austrian ghosts or 21st century aspiring artists.
Madchen asks the sickly Schiele to drop trou (the first instance of quite a bit of full frontal male and female nudity) so she can paint him. Striking an iconic grotesque, he lectures her with expressionist talking points which, stilted as they are (perhaps they are taken directly from Schiele's writings...?), come across pedantic instead of incendiary as they probably were in Austria circa 1918. As Schiele's rant grows more intense he suddenly vanishes, leaving Madchen with a completed canvas.
The following morning, the confused and now coughing Madchen seeks out advice from Dr. Sonnenschein, a family friend and sex therapist (the incandescent and sensual Elizabeth Hess). Dr. S chalks Madchen's hallucinations up to mounting pre-exhibition stress and sends her off to seek medical help. Dr. Blumen (the tightly wound, bumbling, and very funny Adam Hyland) thinks she's got a flu of some sort (cue ominous foreshadowing music for those who know Schiele's bio), but Madchen is more interested in him than in his diagnosis and invites him over for a modeling session/date. Schiele comes again that night, infecting her further with his sickness and his lust for poetic expression. Madchen decides that she is Schiele's reincarnation and from here, the play transforms into an extended hallucination, with suitably grotesque expressionist pas-de-deux, stunning sound and light design (from Sanaz Ghajarrahimi and Stephanie Palmer, respectively), and a nifty piece of stage magic by art designer, Ellie Famutimi, allowing the ensemble to "paint" Schiele canvasses with water. Here the text is able to achieve a certain levity, almost parodying its early obtuseness as it devolves into cyclical chaos, reminiscent at some points of Ionesco. But Schiele's work is not absurdist and, though some theatrically compelling moments do emerge in this nightmarish dreamscape, they take us further from the expressionism that is this piece's raison d'etre, undermining what poignancy his tragic life might evoke.
At it's core, Self Portrait... seems to explore the ramifications, both literal and metaphorical, of what happens when artists connect across space and time, but without successfully developing Madchen's character beyond her function as a vessel for Schiele's spirit, and without substantively exploring what that spirit means to art history, to the play's characters, or to the playwright himself, the play leaves us longing for a trip to the Neue Galerie, where we might understand more deeply why Schiele is such a vital inspiration to so many of Madchen's real-world counterparts.