Caravaggio
/ by R. Sheth

November 1, 2006
By Scott C. Morgan

Dramatizing the life of a painter on stage is a tricky proposition.

What makes an artist's work compelling on a canvas doesn't always translate to talky drama. And unlike film, you can't rely on canvas close-ups to show the essence of an artist to an unschooled audience.

Caravaggio, Richard Vetere's world-premiere drama for Silk Road Theatre Project, doesn't completely overcome these pitfalls, especially when compared to Derek Jarman's anachronistic 1986 film with the same title. Yet Vetere's version makes a very strong showing with its talking points on religion, faith and art through the revolutionary baroque Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio ( c. 1571-1610 ) .

Caravaggio is revered for his realism in Biblical paintings, daring to show the saints and apostles dressed as everyday people. His technique of painting in extreme darkness and light ( known as tenebroso or chiaroscuro ) was also trend-setting.

Little is known about the real life of Caravaggio, though plenty has been gleaned from police records. Caravaggio hung out with Rome's many lowlifes, got in fights and very likely slept around with both men and women. Caravaggio is also on record for killing a man, which is where Vetere starts his drama.

While Catholic cardinals sympathetic to the artist's work try to pull strings for a Papal pardon, Caravaggio is sent to Malta in supposed safety. Unfortunately, his host is the religious fanatic Alof de Wignacourt, who brutally enforces his "Christian" values against Turkish forces and anyone who doesn't buy into his very narrow interpretation of the Bible.

Wignacourt continues to haunt Caravaggio even after he escapes to Naples. There, Caravaggio forces his way into the home of establishment painter Annibale Carracci and challenges that artist's complacent style and approach to making acceptable art.

To keep his play from being too intellectually dry, Vetere smartly weaves in a few swordfights, some intense gay and straight heavy petting and the constant threat of Wignacourt's forces lurking in the shadows. It doesn't entirely make up for a few slow passages, or help make Caravaggio into a character you genuinely care about.

Still, one can easily see the parallels Vetere draws in the play to the increased influence of fanatical religion, causing more violence both then and now. Vetere's point that true spirituality can come in unconventional forms applies directly to Caravaggio's once-scandalous but now revered masterpieces.

Director Dale Heinen has staged a handsome production with many solid performances. Mike Simmer appropriately makes a contradictory title character who is constantly rubbing people the wrong way. Sean Sinitski wasn't single-mindedly malevolent enough for my tastes as Wignacourt, though Julian Martinez as his manipulative and haughty henchman certainly was.

Levi Petree as Caravaggio's male lover Francesco and Brenda Barrie as the prostitute Lena both made for very attractive love interests, while Don Blair as Cardinal Del Monte and Ron Wells as Carracci both delivered strong performances.

Joe Jensen's video projections are a great help to show off the artist's work, even if Caravaggio's much-talked about "Calling of St. Matthew" painting isn't shown. ( Perhaps they couldn't get the rights to it. ) Lee Keenan's moody lighting also tapped into Caravaggio's contrasts of light and dark.

Though not perfect, Silk Road Theatre Project's Caravaggio is an approachable drama that tries to examine the thought and feeling behind the transcendent paintings of the great Baroque master. Its messages also demand contemplation for today.