Art and Madness
A local playwright takes on the healing properties of art
Published: July 20, 2011
By Marilyn Millstone
Through July 31 at Fells Point Corner Theatre
Who doesn’t love a story set in a mental asylum? Art-history buffs may be familiar with the institutionalization of French sculptress Camille Claudel, the tortured soul and student-turned-lover of Auguste Rodin around the turn of the 20th century. While the real Camille withered away until her death, Marilyn Millstone’s The Sculptress offers Camille (Karin Rosnizeck) a second chance at life in the form of fellow artist Remedios Varo (Yagmur Muftuoglu). Paid by Camille’s brother Paul (Stephan Aleksander) to visit the asylum, Remedios does her best to rescue Camille from the depths of madness, or at least from the depths of artist’s block.
The Sculptress, staged at Fells Point Corner Theatre, is one of the opening plays in the 30th season of the Baltimore Playwrights Festival and Millstone, a journalist for American Style magazine and a first-time playwright, owes much to the play’s cast for helping her script live up to its own dramatic premise. Rosnizeck imbues Camille with just the right amount of crazy. Her voice is at once quavering and powerful, and her expressive face and mess of frazzled blond hair make for a convincing asylum patient. Aleksander’s Paul is even more arresting: The actor speaks with such a fierce intensity that it hardly even matters what he’s saying. As a government diplomat with a personal life, he has a lot of things on his mind (World War II, for one), and his stress manifests itself brilliantly through his face, voice, and physicality. Not only does he have strong feelings about his sister’s stay in the asylum—he has the strongest possible feelings. It borders on absurd, but in a good way.
You get the impression that Remedios is supposed to be brimming with fiery Spanish passion (think Penélope Cruz), and Muftuoglu does attempt to assert the awesome power of her femininity in each line. She even physically resembles the real-life Remedios. But when she’s up against Camille, Muftuoglu’s Remedios seems very young and even awkward. Camille and Paul own their scenes while Remedios is more memorable for her overearnest—and therefore somewhat incongruous—reactions to the things they say. When Paul informs Remedios that his sister is “harmless,” she claps a hand to her mouth and repeats the word as if she has just been asked to fellate someone.
While a bit of wobbly acting may be forgiven, the script seems to gloss over the most important element in the whole play: the development of the friendship that is solely responsible for the only major change that any of the characters undergo. The playwright has conveniently chosen the surrealist painter Remedios (like “remedy,” get it?) to try and release Camille from her funk. While there is plenty of buildup to Remedios’ first visit to the asylum, the two women meet and are transformed into intimate confidantes almost instantly. The effect is that of a montage, providing some striking images (the artists standing between chalk outlines of themselves that they have drawn on the walls, for example) but depriving the women of any real depth of character. They seem to fall into this passionate platonic relationship for no reason other than the fact that they both appreciate art. Even when the women hash out such essential topics as feminism and the existence or nonexistence of God, the audience is never given enough time to settle into their heads and figure out what’s really binding them together.
The lack of such crucial development threatens to make the play frustrating or merely uninteresting, but its effective moments come just often enough to stave off such a fate. Remedios’ nightmare is as surreal as one of her paintings, and Camille’s pain shines through when she worries that Remedios has abandoned her. As for Paul, that single perfect sob of his really takes the cake. It’s hard to write about troubled geniuses, but with help from some fine actors, The Sculptress almost gets there.
> Email Audrey Szepinski