Caravaggio paints it like it is / by R. Sheth

Highland Park News
October 18, 2006
By Catey Sullivan

The contrasts in Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio's grotesque and mesmerizing painting David and Goliath are extraordinary.

David is exquisitely young, a pre-adolescent whose angelic face evokes unimaginable purity. But the face belies the killer revealed in the hands: David holds the huge, decapitated head of Goliath; cherubic boy-soprano fingers clutching tangles of mud-dark hair, exposing the dead man's furious, final agony.

David is luminous, unblemished, lit from within. Goliath is a gargoyle, grimacing and monstrous. Caravaggio's face, notes one of his patrons in the Silk Road Theatre Project's Caravaggio is reflected twice on the canvas.

David has the face of Caravaggio early in his career. Goliath is the same man years later, after being tortured on the rack of the Spanish Inquisition, after sending away the love of his life, after being forced to compromise every principal that defined his life as both a man and an artist.

The painting encapsulates the spirit of Silk Road's fascinating production of Richard Vetere's messy drama about the a 16th century painter whose work was equally reviled and adored.

In Caravaggio paintings, saints are flesh-and-blood humans - A portrait of Mary at her death doesn't show a divine being ascending into heaven but a dead woman with the face of a whore Caravaggio knew from his years frequenting Rome's brothels and taverns "in search of humanity."

Stark, black spaces are significant in all of Caravaggio's work, representations of places "where God was not." Such places are ones that Caravaggio was intimately familiar with - Before he turned 10, his parents and brother had been killed by the Black Death.

"I am damned because I paint the world as God made it, and that infuriates Him," Caravaggio quietly screams at one point in "Caravaggio."

That's the core conflict in Vetere's play, and it's one that gets a bit muddled in the sprawling narrative depicting the 16th century painter's short, brilliant and tormented life.

Dale Heinen directs with an acute flair for sumptuous, breath-taking visual pictures, creating an opulent, compelling production of a play that needs streamlining. In the almost picaresque adventures of the title character, the forces that shaped those adventures - heartbreak, passion, violence and an unstoppable drive to create - are sometimes dwarfed to insignificance.

That said, there's a magnificent cast at work here. As Caravaggio, Mike Simmer's feverish intensity propels the piece. From the humanity of his paintings (gorgeously realized as living tableaux throughout the production), comes the crashing, crushing truth that "the loneliness of the spirit and the loneliness of the flesh are one and the same," a truth Simmer delivers with primal, howling fierceness.

And as Caravaggio's artistic antithesis Caracci, Ron Wells is a gleaming-eyed artist with demons of his own.