“We all begin with a clean slate,” they say, in an opening “Birth” sequence, hands dipped in a bowl of clear water, bodies innocent in white undershirts and scrub pants. They explain how quickly our lives become defined by hues both literal (blue for boys, pink for girls) and metaphorical (the gold of a parent’s pride, the black of rejection). As others leave their marks on us, so do we on the people whose lives come in contact with ours: “We are constantly painters and canvases all at once.”
Word by word, stroke by stroke, those fresh faces and pristine pajamas get smeared, stained and splattered with the chromatic fallout from childhood friendships (brown), first loves (yellow), shared passions (red), thwarted convictions (dark gray).
As the paint flies, with some nice acoustic underscoring, we see Rorschach-like suggestions of tenderness and violence, alienation and connection.
The performers share the wisdom of painters past: Van Gogh, Picasso and others who might have popped up on a Google search for “famous artist quotes.” And they ask, “Who was it that painted you?” It’s a colorful exercise and an emotionally rewarding one at times. Still, much is missing from this picture.
Taking away the several minutes spent setting up the piece — the ritual laying of drop cloths, the arrangement of guitars, the positioning of paint trays (an action that prompted at least one dressed-up viewer Saturday night to select a farther-away seat) — Painted runs about half an hour, so it’s over before the paint has dried and the ideas have soaked in. Not that we blame the actors. After a show like this, we’d all be in a rush for the showers ourselves.
The brief running time would feel more in proportion to the subject if the creators had limited themselves to smaller, more personal moments like those reflected on early in the piece: Monologues about being adopted from an orphanage and falling for a girl of a different race hit their marks simply and beautifully, whereas a would-be climactic sequence, drawing on interviews with those who remember 9/11, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the shootings at Kent State, the Kennedy assassination and other disasters, was, for me, the weakest portion of the show — distancing, grandiose, and at its worst, trivializing. I don’t think the actual victims of these events would appreciate seeing their experiences reduced to the dimensions of a Crayola box, even one of those big ones with the built-in sharpener.
Painted ends, though, on a satisfying note of purity and inspiration. The show’s framework is there. A trip back to the drawing board, with some real soul-searching, would get these gifted aspirants closer to a true work of art.
Performed at Duveneck through June 6. See performance dates and preview here.