Artistic Torment / by R. Sheth

October 2006
By Kathy Catrambone

The tortured life of groundbreaking Baroque artist Caravaggio will be explored in the coming months by Silk Road Theatre Project.

Each generation, a visionary comes along who shakes up the status quo and forces people to look at the world in a different way.

Italian painter Caravaggio (1573-1610) was one of those extraordinary people. Perhaps the most revolutionary artist of his time, Caravaggio abandoned the rules that had guided a previous century of artists who idealized the human and religious experience.

Caravaggio’s creative and tumultuous life intrigued Italian-American playwright and screenplay writer Richard Vetere. That fascination blossomed into a play about Michelangelo Merisi, who as an adult became known by the name of his birthplace.

The play — set in 17th century Rome, Malta and Naples — tells the story of Caravaggio, the father of the Baroque style of art, whose daring creativity and volatile personality attracted the favor and wrath of the Church he both loved and reviled. Whether undertaking commissions from the Vatican or confronting the cruelties of the Inquisition, Caravaggio’s short life was charged with artistry, violence and passion.

By the time he was 24, his works caused public outcry because of their realistic and dramatic nature. Despite harsh criticism, his reputation grew. He had many encounters with the law and became a fugitive waiting for a pardon by the pope. During his years as a fugitive, he produced some of the greatest paintings of his career. After being pardoned, he was wrongfully arrested and imprisoned for two days. A boat that was to take him to Rome left without him, taking his belongings. Exhausted and sick, he collapsed on the beach and died a few days later.

Chicago theater audiences can see the world premiere of the play about this man who was ahead of his time this month and next as part of Silk Road Theatre Project at Pierce Hall in the Historic Chicago Temple Building, 77 West Washington St., Chicago.

Silk Road Theatre Project showcases playwrights of Mediterranean, Asian and Middle Eastern backgrounds whose works address themes relevant to the people of the Silk Road and their Diaspora communities.

The project is a creative response by its co-founders, Malik Gillani and Jamil Khoury, to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “The consequences of that catastrophic day are sure to reverberate for years to come, posing unique and urgent challenges for artists of all backgrounds, and inspiring us to educate, promote dialogue, and heal rifts through the transformative power of theater,” they say.

They felt galvanized to respond to the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments that swept the United States in the aftermath of the attacks using theater as the medium in which they’d “create change.” Their idea quickly expanded beyond the Middle East to encompass the historic Silk Road.

The term “Silk Road” refers to the extensive trade routes that originated in China and stretched across Central and South Asia, the Middle East, and into Mediterranean Europe, culminating in Italy, from the second century B.C. until the 16th century A.D. These transcontinental caravans resulted not only in trade, of which silk was an important commodity, but also in cross-cultural interaction among the diverse people of the regions, fostering the exchange of ideas and the fusion of art and aesthetics.

The Silk Road’s legacy is associated with traditions of oral narrative, epic poetry and storytelling. The work of Vetere, noted as an “important chronicler of both the Italian-American experience and more recently, the rich artistic heritage of his ancestral homeland” by Silk Road Project organizers, fits well into the setting of the project.

Vetere, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, is a versatile writer. He wrote the critically acclaimed novel, The Third Miracle, and co-authored the screenplay produced by Francis Ford Coppola, starring Ed Harris and Anne Heche. Roger Ebert gave it a rave review and the novel has been translated into several languages.

Vetere also wrote the teleplay, The Marriage Fool, for CBS, starring Walter Matthau and Carol Burnett, as well as the General Motors Playwrights Theater presentation of his stage play, Hale the Hero! starring Elizabeth Shue and Kevin Anderson on the A&E cable channel.

His play, Machiavelli, just completed a run in New York City and is moving this fall to an off-Broadway theater. His play One Shot, One Kill was produced for the 2002 theater season in New York City, and he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. The book to his musical, A Hundred Years Into the Heart, recently was performed at Lincoln Center as part of the Broadway Bound series and will open during the 2007 season.

Vetere recently completed a commission to write the Mario Lanza story, as a book to the musical Be my Love, for Phil Ramone, Sonny Grosso and Pierre Cossett.

His TV work includes being story editor of the 2003 ABC-TV series, Threat Matrix. He also wrote the movie, How to go out on a date in Queens, based on his stage play and starring Jason Alexander.

He also is an actor. He can be seen in the new film, The Limbo Room, which just premiered at Slamdance Film Festival. He has published several volumes of poetry. He holds a master’s degree in comparative English literature from Columbia University and teaches screenwriting at New York University. Vetere was born and raised and still lives in New York City.