To analyze the life of an artist seems a foolish, perhaps doomed, endeavor. Words are incapable of characterizing the magic behind the brush stroke, often seeming trivializing and petty, or unfairly sweeping. In A Brush with Georgia O’Keeffe Natalie Mosco’s lyrical script skips through the life of O’Keeffe, but fails to capture the vast beauty of her art. It could even be said that the play, mostly a lengthy monologue, dissolves the mystery of her art by dissection. Jumping quickly from scenes in a long life, Mosco spends considerable time and energy, but only skims the surface of the work and life of O’Keeffe. In performance the show’s title seems painfully apt: we are brushing the surface of something fleeting and impossible to hold. The play opens with the stark solitude of the older O’Keeffe. In the desert, with only wild turkeys and the enormity of her “myth” to keep her company, she muses philosophically about the problematic relationship between the artist’s life and her art: “They won’t understand my art any better if they see how I live: It’s all there on the canvas…Where I was born and where and how I live is unimportant—it’s what I’ve done with where I’ve been that should be of interest.” During the next hour and a half this key notion is disregarded, while Mosco covers the disparate places, the opportunistic people, and the various incarnations of the artist herself. Perhaps it’s appropriate that this survey is an inadequate way of exploring O’Keeffe’s canvases, but this kind of irony has no place in such a sincere production.
After introducing the wise, confident O’Keeffe, Mosco explores her troubled side in scenes from a sanitarium and her childhood. In covering such an eventful life, Mosco unfortunately follows the form of a jumbled timeline. Rather than follow a narrative arc, the show lists accomplishments like a résumé, hitting upon so many events that Mosco speaks with breathless speed. Perhaps some editing, or a narrower focus—fewer scenes, selecting a specific period or piece—would help.
Despite problems with the show’s premise, Mosco’s confidence and clear vision are impressive strengths when it comes to portraying an imporant female artist. She adopts the many incarnations of O’Keeffe, twisting her limbs gracefully to evoke the natural shapes one assumes danced in O’Keeffe’s mind. Still, the show drags and there is not enough movement to make up for such a text-laden script.
Supporting Mosco are two highly capable actors that similarly adapt to the multitude of parts. David Lloyd Walters, playing and representing the men in Georgia’s life, walks a fine line between boorishness and enviable confidence. He exudes the sort of clarity of expression and self-possession that Georgia cannot, highlighting the doubt that plagues and stifles her. Virginia Roncetti has the unenviable task of playing the female non-Georgias—less talented and either fawning or jealous. Even with this material, she is a playful chameleon who is entertaining to watch in all forms. Yet, the characters are often black and white interpretations that force the viewer to strictly adhere to Mosco’s point of view.
This controlling vision is further demonstrated through the use of a projector and screen that offer images of O’Keefe’s paintings and photographs of her and characters in her life. The photographs are wonderful, but the goofy revisions of O’Keeffe’s paintings inexplicably break down the work and set its pieces into motion. The animations are often crude takes on the paintings; stark contrasts to the serious artist portrayed by Mosco. It is an odd decision to modify the final object when we are asked to sympathize so much with the artist’s independent vision.
Unlike the projector, the show’s other backdrop, a strip of blue sky with wispy clouds, is a stunningly simple evocation of space and limitlessness. Though obviously a screen on a stage, when the sky appears it seems to come into the fullness of being with O’Keeffe’s conception of it. In its simplicity, this screen achieves what the collaged details of the projection do not.
Director Robert Kalfin deftly moves the actors around the screens, wisely mining the rare interactions between them for all their comic and tragic worth. Yet, his strict dedication to Mosco’s script cannot help a production that is stilted and lacking nuance.
Unsurprisingly, the play’s initial claims turn out to be true: after hearing the history, the art is not better “seen,” nor is the artist. It is unclear why Mosco, a talented writer and performer, understanding the complications of biography, commits herself so enthusiastically to this straightforward, unenlightening format. To learn more about an artist one should see an exhibit; as Mosco’s character states: look at her work, not at her.