Written and directed by Nic Ularu
Set design by Heather Abraham, costumes by Lisa Martin Stuart, lighting by Aaron Pelzek, video by Simon Tarr and sound by Walter Clisse. Production manager is K. Dale White and stage manager is Christine Jacky.
At La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club January 20, 2012. The production runs through January 29.
Hieronymus was made possible by a Creative Grant from the University of SC Provost’s Office and through support from the College of Arts and Sciences and the Department of Theatre and Dance.
NEW YORK CITY: The great painter Hieronymus Bosch is famous for stirring our souls with his fantastical, hybrid creatures. His depictions of nudity, torment, suffering and inhumanity tantalize. His most widely known triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights (c1503-1504), for example, exhibits a lurid pop-culture appeal. The smear of blood in Ecce Homo (c1480) — his painting of a hunched-over Christ displayed before a crowd of jeering onlookers in Jerusalem — won’t faze any fan of the grisly-exuberant films of Brian de Palma and Quentin Tarantino. Bosch pricks up the devilish inside us. We are inspired to take wing in his flights of orgiastic horror.
Interestingly, as seductive as his corrupt world was, few playwrights have bothered to dramatize Bosch’s life and times. This lack of interest is odd, since the very sketchiness of his biography would seem to be a distinct advantage. Bosch’s life is an empty vessel into which a fruitful creative mind could easily fill with surrealist incident and made-up anecdote grounded in history. (Compare Bosch’s curious case with Caravaggio whose short life, which was charged with artistry, violence and passion, has inspired numerous biographical plays and novels.) So far as I know, only two playwrights have stepped into the breach. The American playwright Don Nigro, who wrote a series of plays about artists, once wrote a biting existentialist farce, Hieronymous Bosch, in which Bosch and his wife Aleyt grapple with younger versions of themselves.
The other playwright is the Romanian-born writer/director Nic Ularu whose fascinating Hieronymus runs through Sunday January 29 at LaMaMa E.T.C.
Ularu’s sumptuously image-rich biographical play bills itself as “a visual performance.” That phrase gives us a key to the formal ambitions of this dramatic work. The play is a period piece. It pulls us back to the concerns of the 15th century. Yet Ularu’s inventive take on this slice of history is wholly contemporary in dialogue, presentation and sensibility. The text consists of scenes of a dissolving marriage that move along the sobering lines of a domestic drama. The plot chronicles the unraveling of Hieronymus’s marriage to Aleid, who leaves him for a younger man. And yet Ularu’s directorial gloss embraces the playful spirit of a sensuous scenographic installation.
Hieronymus pulses in that liminal space in between dramatic representation and visual abstraction. It’s a picture book of a play. It’s a meditation of the plight of the artist today and a hybrid re-composition that celebrates that artist’s singular voice.
Unfortunately LaMaMa’s presentation of Hieronymus suffers from an insurmountable problem. Ularu’s project is too pictorially ambitious and his storytelling too old-fashioned for La MaMa E.T.C.‘s the Club. This cabaret space is best suited for dizzy frolics, spritzy one-offs and noisy music gigs. The ideal venue for Hieronymus is the Ellen Stewart Theater or a similarly poetic space or white-walled gallery that would allow for Ularu’s pastiche of performed text and performance design to rhyme and fully resonate.
At the Club, the play is hampered by a red-brick, raised-platform structure where video projections (a major element here) are difficult to pull off. Ularu’s solution is to pull a curtain in front of the audience throughout the show. This effect allows him to throw a tableau of Bosch imagery in front the actors, but it leaves an unmistakable emotional distance between the audience and the actors, particularly difficult in those sections where Paul Kaufmann, the robust actor who plays Bosch, is reaching out for our sympathy. The best seat in the house is not in first two or three rows but all the way from the back.
As evidenced by Ularu’s 2008 play The Cherry Orchard Sequel — in which Ularu imagines Chekhov’s characters at the rise of Stalin 18 years after the end of the 1904 play — Ularu is an engaging fabricator. He knows how to spin a surefooted yarn even as he freely invents things out of whole cloth. Part of the reason that Bosch’s paintings are so enigmatic to us today is that there aren’t many things that we know about who he was. Little is known of his life or training. He left behind no letters or diaries. Ularu is a fabulist with a social-message streak. In The Cherry Orchard Sequel, Ularu scores timely points about Russian life under Stalin. In Hieronymus, Ularu fleshes out Bosch’s sketchy biography with pertinent observations on the problem with arrogant artists who are too out of touch with reality and too out of step with their times.
As Bosch, the expressive Paul Kaufmann confidently brings home a complicated portrait. His Bosch is so enamoured of his own artistic talents that he has forgotten the emotional and sexual needs of his wife, Aleid. As the play progresses, Kaufmann’s Bosch grows more strident and overbearing, especially when Church officials attack him as a heretic and when demons invade his dreams. Ironically, the only person in the play who supports and protects Hieronymus is Aleid’s father, Goyarts. A wealthy merchant Goyarts doesn’t fully appreciate the full meaning of the painter’s work. Aleid, played by the alluring Jen Burry, was probably attracted to the painter because of her Adamite tendencies (it’s the reason she enjoys standing naked by the windows while being painted by her husband, to the consternation of her neighbors). As Bosch becomes ever more self-involved, to the point of holing himself up inside his attic studio, Aleid voices her independence and busts a move.
Talky but engrossing, Hieronymus spins back and forth between two spaces: inside Bosch’s stinky studio — and inside his troubled mind. Appropriately enough, the curtain rolls in and out of the proscenium front, effectively (sometimes erratically) demarcating the different states in which Ularu’s cautionary tale is playing itself out. As a metaphor, the curtain works to explain how Hieronymus managed to escape the Black Plague that decimated European homes and villages. The curtain also dampens the titillation factor that nude bodies induce in prurient viewers. In this sense, Hieronymus parallels the ambiguity of Bosch’s art. Neither Ularu nor Bosch are interested in nudity or sexual acts for lasciviousness’ sake. Indeed, despite the many naked congregations and couples Bosch places in The Garden of Earthly Delights, there are no sexual acts explicitly portrayed in it. If anything, the screen becomes a second thematic layer in which the onstage figures and visual quotations from Bosch’s vocabulary are juxtaposed to create an animated Prospero’s Book-like montage.
If anything, Hieronymus presents us with an ambiguous parable. In the prayer that (too abruptly) ends this jewel-like play, Hieronymus ironically suggests that Bosch’s subversive art reflects the man’s deeply religious spirit. Far from being a rebel or a devil, Bosch was more orthodox and more angelic than his sinful paintings of humanity or the Church officials’ admonitions have led us to believe. The curtain, thus, becomes a magical canvas for Ularu’s counter-intuitive statement on the state of the secular artist. Profane imagery, wondrous fantasies and grotesque symbols freely float on this chimerical screen. It serves up a cinematic re-interpretation of a conflicted religious artist’s subconscious mind, a world of strange forms and divinely inspired monsters that flicker and change before our eyes. — Randy Gener