You’d be forgiven for not immediately recognizing the name Artemisia Gentileschi. Art history is a bit of a niche area, and Italian Baroque art even more so. However, if you were to go see Joy McCullough’s Blood Water Paint, which opened at 12th Ave Arts on Friday, I guarantee it’s not a name that you will forget. The Macha Theatre Works’ Production, directed by Amy Poisson, is a dramatisation of the most infamous event of the painter’s life, her rape by her mentor, Agostino Tassi, and the subsequent trial she decided to pursue.
While Artemisia (Bianca Raso) is now considered one of the best artists of her time, the show opens with her at seventeen, motherless and apprenticing for her talentless hack of a father, Orazio (Michael D. Blum), a job that includes having her father take credit for her work and being forced to work as his nude model. For comfort, she paints, specifically Judith Slaying Holofernes, and Susanna and the Elders. For Artemisia, and the audience, these biblical ladies come alive, played by Meredith Armstrong and Leah Jarvik respectively. They pose behind an empty frame and encourage their creator to paint them with a level of emotional understanding of their situations that they insist only a woman could have. While doing this, they also flip their bodies through silk ropes suspended from the ceiling. It’s visually beautiful to behold while adding an ethereal quality to their imaginary characters.
Raso’s performance is a joy to behold, constantly showing an impressive ability to emote on several simultaneous levels. As she bickers with Blum about her work, she is defiant, arrogant, and also exasperatedly fond of her father, grateful to be given the rare opportunity to paint as woman in early Baroque Rome, but also yearning desperately for more than she has been given. This explains her delight at being provided another teacher, her father’s celebrity connection, Agostino (Tim Gagne), who is tasked with teaching her the art of perspective. Gagne’s initial portrayal of Agostino is wonderfully complex, he is handsome, roguishly charming, and best of all supports Artemisia’s underappreciated work. It’s enough to convince her to fall for him, despite his refusal to acknowledge her discomfort with his physicality or back his support of her art with a concrete offer of work.
Unfortunately, despite the incredible potential of the first half of the production, the script loses this subtlety in its final forty minutes. Agostino flips from adoring, if flawed, potential love interest to a cartoonish caricature of a villain after a minor disagreement. I was half expecting him to start twirling his mustache as the play built up to the assault. Meanwhile, the narrative devolves into increasingly lengthy tangents that fail to come together into a cohesive whole. Judith and Susanna both act out their respective stories, which while helpful for an audience without a strong understanding of biblical tales, ultimately feels unnecessary and errs on melodramatic. At the same time, Artemisia’s future daughter (Alysha Curry) confusingly pops in and out of the set to learn perspective from a now thirty-four year old Artemisia.
While Raso’s incredible performance in the aftermath of her attack is reason enough to see the show (this girl can sob, from desolation to fury to pain, she induced chills), it’s disappointing that a contemporary play that takes (expected) liberty with history chooses to eschew a nuanced view of relational power in favour of a reductive view of feminism, in which women are continuously victimized by unrelenting male oppressors. The show is worth it for the skill of the actors and the emotional response they elicit, but don’t expect anything groundbreaking in terms of gender politics.
While never obscene or explicit, Blood Water Paint intimately deals with sexual assault and its aftermath, and is suitable for mature viewers only. Tickets and more info available here. The show runs at 12th Ave Arts through October 6th.