nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 22, 2012
Hieronymus Bosch's most famous work, the triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, has been the inspiration for at least one famous contemporary theatre work (of the same title, by Martha Clarke). So his life would seem to be a worthy subject for exploration on stage, and although Nic Ularu's new play Hieronymus suffers from some problems in its execution, it does provide some tantalizing ideas about who Bosch was, how he related to the times he lived in, and why his work has endured.
Hieronymus takes us into Bosch's home and attic studio, at the time that he is working on his magnum opus. We learn that his wife Aleid is something of a sexual free spirit (apparently she had a lesbian affair with a servant before their marriage, and she is prone to Adamite tendencies, shedding her clothes so that her husband may sketch her and, apparently, displaying herself in the window). Hieronymus married her for her money, and is supported and protected by her father, a wealthy merchant who seems to have an appreciation for his son-in-law's talent if not a full understanding of what he's trying to accomplish in his work.
We also learn that Bosch is from a long line of painters, and that his brother Goossen—presumably less talented and certainly less visionary than he—is so jealous of him that he threatens to denounce him to the Inquisition. (Bosch lived in the second half of the 15th century, at the peak of the movement in the Church to ferret out and punish heretics.)
The details of Bosch's life threaten to make Hieronymus into a soap opera in places, and unfortunately Ularu's text, which is littered with phrasing and cadences that are often jarringly contemporary and sometimes just awkward, doesn't serve to heighten this aspect of his tale. Dream sequences, though, in which we get an appreciation of the demons haunting the artist that caused him to produce his surprising and alarming work, are more interesting. Ularu suggests that Bosch's art sprang from warring elements within his psyche—on the one hand, an expression of his devotion to the Church, and on the other a reaction to the horrific circumstances of life at that time, with the Plague decimating villages and fires destroying homes and lives almost instantaneously.
Ularu shows images from Bosch's work throughout Hieronymus, projected on scrim curtains in two places on the set; I think I may have been sitting too near the front to see these properly. In the first scene, Ularu has Jen Burry, as Aleid, apparently nude in silhouette behind the rear scrim, which is very effective; for whatever reason he does not repeat this choice when nudity is depicted later in the play, which feels skittish in a play where nudity is a relatively significant plot point. Burry and the rest of the cast—Paul Kaufmann as Hieronymus, Paul Kelly as Goossen, Richard Jennings as Aleid's father, and Park Bucker and Ryan Krause—don't always seem completely comfortable in the piece; perhaps that will change as the run continues.