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Who’s Afraid of Experimental Theater?

When I hear the words “experimental theater” I picture this scene in David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day:

I’m slicing this pineapple now, I thought. Next I’ll just rip apart these sock monkeys and pour the stuffing into this tall rubber boot. Good, that’s good. Nobody pours stuffing like you do, my friend. Now I’ll snip off of my hair with these garden shears, place the bottlecaps over my eyes, and we’re almost home…A week after my drugs ran out, I left my bed to perform at the college, deciding at the last minute to skip both the doughnut toss and the march of the headless plush toys. Instead, I just heated up a skillet of plastic soldiers, poured a milkshake over my head, and called it a night.

Cow Skull: Red, White, and Blue (1931)

I realize Sedaris wrote that scene about performance art, not experimental theater, but for whatever reason the image remains burned in my brain. So, when my husband declared on Friday night that his plan for our “date night” was to see a play at our neighborhood experimental theater, Broom Street Theater, I figured we’d watch someone melt G.I. Joe figurines for an hour or so and then, like Sedaris, we’d call it a night. Instead, we got something much better (I know, it’s hard to believe).

The play we saw, “A Woman on Paper,” is an original play about the life and art of Georgia O’Keefe, written and directed by a talented local playwright, Heather Renken. The title comes from Anita Pollitzer’s biography of O’Keefe with the same name. The play follows O’Keefe from her rural beginnings in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, to her dominant role in the world of modern art. To glean much of the dialogue, Renken studied the correspondence between O’Keefe and her husband, the photographer and influential art promoter,  Alfred Stieglitz.  By watching “A Woman on Paper,” the audience gets a sense of just how much the art world changed during O’Keefe’s lifetime, and how the modern artists of the period influenced and interacted with one another. Many of the scenes take place in Steiglitz’s gallery 291 in New York. Actors playing artists such as Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, and Marcel Duchamp walk on and off stage, much as they must have come in and out of the 291 gallery in its heydey.

What I enjoyed most about the play was that it brought a vitality to Georgia O’Keefe that I’ve often seen in her paintings, but missed in the stark 1977 documentary in which O’Keefe talks eloquently, but in isolation, about her art. The 60-seat Broom Street Theater lent an intimacy to the performance that comes from a small venue. I would love for this play to reach a larger audience, though. Artists and art lovers, photographers, writers, and history buffs would all enjoy this beautiful play.

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