Kazimierz Braun, the playwright and director of "Tamara L.," has set himself a difficult task. He bases his play on a reported episode in the life of art deco painter Tamara Lempicka (1898-1980) in which the then-famous artist visits a monastery in Parma in order to execute a portrait of Mother Superior.
Set sometime in the late 1930s in Mussolini's fascist Italy, this meeting alone might have had dramatic potential. A racy, beautiful, drug-taking, sometimes-lesbian artist desires to get the inside view of life among the nuns to look close at lives devoted to the spirit instead of the flesh. Two opposing world views clash mightily. Unexpectedly, the good mother's formidable presence and unshakable faith move the artist. She finds, to her chagrin, that she has spiritual longings after all.
Not bad. Except when Braun's Tamara talks, that is. The loquacious artist mouths the most god-awful art blather. "Art touches the feelings," she proclaims grandly at one point, as if the thought was original with her. "It transforms the world."
Or, try this on for an artist-as-God conceit: "I created the light, and the light obeys me, and the darkness, too." Even Picasso didn't lay claim to be the prime mover of the universe. And Lempicka was no Picasso.
This Tamara is a pontificating, puffed up character stuffed to the gills with every cliche about art and artists that ever came tumbling out of Montmarte. The poet in her has her "smash(ing) rainbows into new shapes"; the existentialist in her has her finding "abysses full of agony" in the wrinkles of the nun's face.
This kind of hyperbolic expression would be hard for any actor. But as Tamara, Kristen Kos goes entirely in the wrong direction. Such high-flying metaphoric speech needs to be played down, not spiked up. The only way to make such flowery language digestible in the new millennium is to lend it some hint of a rhythm borrowed from ordinary speech. Then it might seem to issue from a living character instead of bounding out of this completely stage-fabricated being.
Kos' self-consciously modulated voice would cut through to the back row in a house twice as big as the modest Andrews Theatre. So heavy and predictable were her vocal emphases that I found myself counting out the beats.
Her stagey movements were right in tune with this flamboyant vocal style. Out leaps a hand, the fingers spread wide, the arm stiff. It's the actor's universal -- and hackneyed -- sign for Stop! Stop! I understand! When her arms spring skyward, the wrists bent elegantly outward and each finger archly posed, we know we are in the presence of one of those grandiloquent stage characters able to brush away the deep tragedy of life as though it were an annoying gnat.
By encouraging such patently mannered acting, Braun is as culpable as Kos. He has all monologues delivered directly to the audience, dissipating what little emotional bond exists between the two characters. In one embarrassing scene, with Tamara drugged up, Kos is required to do a "wild" dance in which she attempts to amalgamate a variant on Salome's classic veil dance with a Broadway beatnik thumb-snapping number done to a '50s cool sax, no less. I half expected her to segue into the twist.
I'm always hoping that stage and movie directors will get the artist thing right. They seldom do. Braun might have checked with David Butler, his co-set designer and somebody who knows better, to see if the itsy-bitsy brush Tamara uses to constantly pick around the edges of the big bold black forms of Mother Superior's habit in the portrait was vaguely convincing. We're not talking Van Eyck here, but an artist who used a broad, quasi-cubist approach. Give the woman a brush she can paint with.
And then Tamara is always chastising the poor nun for moving or even smiling in response to the artist's verbal outpouring. Did anyone think it might look weird to have the artist screaming for her to sit still while the painter was endlessly poking away at that cursed habit?
Both in her steady acting and the fortuitous words she is sometimes given, Ana Kay France is the one redeeming factor in this production. Even when she has to spout silly religious commonplaces like, "I did not choose, I was chosen," she so convincingly makes the words seem to come from inside herself that you forgive the icky sentiment.
France's character is designed to insert matters of the soul into the self-regarding remarks of Tamara and, finally, to extract admissions of secret spiritual longings from the artist. Her job is to unobtrusively counter such cutesy Bohemian responses as, "If I ever had a soul it evaporated with champagne bubbles," with an unflinching persona who won't put us to sleep. France is so good she makes even "unflinching" compelling.
From my viewpoint, however, Mother Superior's best turn is as an art critic. I take it from the comments in the playbill that Braun thinks Lempicka is a great 20th century artist. Mother Superior comes closer to the real truth of the matter. In a long monologue the nun suggests that Lempicka "domesticated" cubism. She played up cubism's "most attractive element" and made an art intended from the start to have an easy appeal to the bourgeoisie. This was satisfying because it was something with a defensible base in reality. A second-rate painter's journey to spiritual enlightenment seemed frail and unlikely by comparison. It's a sad comment on the play when a spate of academic art criticism delivered by a nun is more dramatically convincing than the main character's spiritual epiphany.
Rating: * 1/2
Kazimierz Braun's one-act play loosely based on an espisode in the life of Art deco painter Tamara Lempicka.
Part of Irish Classical Theatre Company's Sundays at Seven series.
Through Oct. 21 in the Andrews Theatre, 625 Main St., 853-4282.