A trio of twenty-somethings live precariously in a dingy New York City apartment with a flickering hope that they’re on the edge of greatness. When the windfall of an inheritance fails to materialise, the group decide to risk everything and commit art fraud, betraying an industry they hold in such esteem, for the chance of the recognition they crave.
Winston (Samson Alston) is a young painter nearing the end of his Masters’ Degree but still struggling to find the right direction for his artistic vision. Amelia (Rachel Marley) is a part-time singer, full-time waitress who can feel the stage lights dimming on her dreams of making it big. Jamie (Jasper Bruce) is the glue that holds them together; Amelia’s boyfriend and Winston’s roommate, Jamie has nothing but faith that their talents will win out. But, when he discovers his wealthy art collecting father left him nothing in the will, Jamie needs Winston and Amelia to put their skills to the test in the hopes of saving them all from destitution. The trio concoct a plan for Winston to forge an undiscovered painting by Credeaux, a long-dead French painter only recently getting any kind of attention. Amelia will pose as the nude model and Jamie will sweet-talk an old family friend Tess (Beth Daly) into the purchase. As dangerous a plan as it is, the three don’t know what they’re risking until it’s far too late.
The staging, designed by Les Solomon and lit by Larry Kelly, conveyed the tight and cluttered atmosphere of Winston’s room turned art studio with the eccentricity of a bathtub that doubles as a kitchen sink and triples as Winston’s bed. Kelly’s lighting, though, was able to transform the small stage into a moonlit portrait with a romantic ease. Additional staging restrictions included a very limited audience due to social distancing restrictions and consideration placed on the appropriate distance between audience and actors, as well. But, once the house lights dimmed, it was much like being in an audience in those carefree days of February.
Keith Bunin’s script has all the heat and high-drama of your early 20s with a group of characters with spunky senses of themselves that occasionally lean into grating precociousness. Yet, at the centre of the play is a crystalline complexity: the question of desire. Jamie, Amelia, and Winston are repeatedly asking each other what they want but shying away from the painful self-interrogation that underpins a life, especially an artistic one. Much like Emma Stone’s character in La La Land, Amelia is grappling with the harsh reality that wanting recognition for your art isn’t always enough to get it, while Winston can’t seem to shake the tainting influence of the great artists he admires in order to stand out as his own artist.
Amongst the heady discussions of the future and debates about the ethics of dedicating yourself to an artistic practise, the character of Tess cuts through. Spoken about as a tottering old biddy with too much pride to save herself, Tess is a refreshing voice of experience in the cast, demonstrating a keen and confident eye as she examines Winton’s work (original and forged). Daly plays her excellently with an air of exuberance that doesn’t descend into mockery. She stands in for the all-important art world that Amelia and Winston hope to break into but only understand in the abstract as novice admirers.
As for the love triangle that constitutes the life or death stakes of the script, it overall falls flat as the three actors struggle to develop the necessary tension between each other. Direction from Les Solomon heightens the youthful demeanour of the characters but, in particular with Winston, the naivety and childishness of his characterisation undercuts the callousness of his actions and denies opportunity for intricate complexity in his relationships with Jamie and Amelia respectively. The guilessness of Alston’s Winston dampened his dynamic with Amelia such that Marley’s sharp and fiery verbosity failed to spark a flame in their affair. At the same time, Jamie, played by Bruce with an overwhelming optimism verging on outright denial, lacked the nuance necessary to fully convey the character’s motivations in his persistent pursuit of Amelia or his co-dependence with Winston. There’s a feeling that something of the ambiguity in Bunin’s script is lost with these characters played too far in one direction, whether that’s childish innocence or helpless optimism.
While the end of the COVID-19 crisis still lays over the horizon, it’s fitting to watch young artists speculate about the future of their careers and the trajectory of the industry as a whole. With very little in the way of support from local, state, and federal governments, the Australian arts industry remains in limbo with great uncertainty of who will return when the doors can truly open to audiences again. The cast and crew of the Credeaux Canvas have done well to maintain momentum throughout the lockdown and social distancing restrictions to bring the first independent production to the Sydney stage since March. Perhaps it’s these extraordinary conditions that negatively impacted on the physical connection of this production. But there remains the thrill of picking apart Bunin’s play in real time which makes it worth it.
The Credeaux Canvas is running at El Rocco from July 23rd – August 23rd
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