Governing bodies have a long history of silencing their critics. In The Art of Love, an opinionated but unsatisfyingly passive piece, playwright Robert Kornfeld examines how the Roman poet Ovid's innocent gibes at his fellow man's sexual proclivities earned him a spot on his government's hate list, and ultimately cost him his freedom and happiness. A famous writer and ladies' man, Ovid has been banished to the Greek colony of Tomis, where he has spent most of his days in his own company. After many months, he's decided to make a public appearance, where he'll discuss his famous book The Art of Love and present a performance on the circumstances surrounding his exile from Rome. Some of the townspeople gather to speak with him and end up being figures in the quietly engaging and sorrowful presentation of his past.
The Roman emperor Augustus, plagued with a wayward and immoral daughter and a cold, post-menopausal wife, can't get no satisfaction. He is at odds with his own morality, forced to uphold a public policy of zero tolerance toward sexual misconduct while needing to take a lover on the side to make sure he has sons to continue the line of succession. Augustus believes Ovid's works, with their playful talk about rape and adultery, are poisoning the minds of the Roman people, especially his daughter, as well as undermining the state. Ovid's only powerful champion is Augustus's stepson Tiberius, who begins to be seduced by politics and power plays once he is in line for the throne.
Through it all, Ovid's one source of strength and comfort is his wife, Fastina. For her, he has given up all thoughts of extramarital conquests, and he dedicates his life and writing to their love. His interactions with her in his performance/memories attest to how he misses her more than anything else in Rome.
James Nugent does great credit to the law-trained, romance-obsessed Ovid. His ability to answer directly the questions he wants to answer—and to dance around the questions he would rather avoid lending an opinion to—was enjoyable. There's a rationality to Ovid's passion, so that it wasn't weepy and feminine but a truthful and masculine emotion.
Tom Thornton's Augustus certainly has the gravitas and bearing of an emperor, possibly because he is also the director and people naturally deferred to him. But there were times when he took a bit too long with his speeches, and the pacing suffered from the director not directing himself. It was interesting to watch Stephen Francis take the future emperor Tiberius from a misfit stepchild to a calculating ruler. And as Fastina, Laura Lockwood radiated loveliness and intelligence.
Special mention (and great acclaim) must be given to set designer Mark Mercante, who took advantage of the soundstage-sized playing space and bedecked it with a marvelous interpretation of ancient Italian architecture. It's always refreshing when the proper budget and time are given to set design, as it often gets short shrift in Off-Off-Broadway productions.
Since there were no blackouts to signify scene changes, the lighting designer had the challenging task of keeping things visually interesting in order to hold the audience's attention. While Alex Moore did a nice job illuminating sections of the stage to define the boundaries of the scene's playing area, Thornton's staging was a little demure. This was particularly the case in the first act, when endless exposition and speechmaking slowed down the action. (Higher stakes and more energetic performances enlivened the second half of the show.)
Obviously, exile is missing from our country's punishment playbook; otherwise, people like Michael Moore and Jon Stewart would be missing from movie theaters and television. But censorship is still alive and kicking and making trouble for "troublemakers." It's good to be reminded that it is not a new phenomenon, so we can enjoy our current liberties and know what would be sacrificed if they were taken away.