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Angst as Art

'The Colorado Catechism' can't recover from its script

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If you ever lose painting and love, don't be so boring as to ignore suicide." That's as close as we get to a basic principle in this play, a central doctrine to challenge the characters and present them with questions to answer as an act of affirmation. In addition to resonating as the driving force behind one of the two characters in the play, the quotation from an offstage, deceased character also serves as an adage for the playwright. We can easily imagine the phrase posted prominently in Vincent Cardinal's writing garret, admonishing him never to stray from painting, love and suicide.

The complementary color Cardinal uses to balance the canvas is the none-too-subtle hue of addiction that permeates the play like the weekly lessons driven home in an "After-School Special." When we first meet Ty Wain, he is hopped up on his drug of choice and maniacally dancing around his studio like a kid about to wet his pants, executing an overly choreographed moment of angst caused by the frustration of a single brush stroke. Ah, the purgatory of being an artist in a work of fiction, trapped in a canon of cliches about creative blocks, the dried-up well of inspiration and the requisite act of suffering for one's art.

Ty takes us back in time to an intervention arranged by his backers that resulted in his heading off to a clinic in Cripple Creek, where presumably they know something about addiction. Upon arriving at the clinic, Ty meets another addict, Donna, and launches into what we take on faith as a romantic relationship. She is the faceless subject filling the canvases in Ty's studio three years later. If only we could yell out from the audience, tipping off Ty to the fact that the reason he can't capture her face is because their relationship was empty and insubstantial. But if the script suffers, at least the formula endures; when painting and love fail at the hands of addiction, Cardinal threatens his audience with a unique and graphic suicide motif, a literal death by color, a toxic swan song induced by ingesting the paints on the artist's palate.

The biggest problems in the play come from the script itself. In an effort to keep things light, Cardinal consistently reaches for humor, but he only ends up saddling his cast with handfuls of lines like "I'd trust you if I were me, and I am me." Thankfully, however, the play is not a comedy. It thrives on its characters, but unfortunately, we're never given any reason to care about these characters. While there may be a lingering human instinct to alleviate the suffering of others, a playwright must take the audience beyond simple knee-jerk reactions. If we can't invest ourselves in at least one character, then we can't convince ourselves there is anything on the line as the character;s story unfolds. The threats of suicide, of relapses, and the consequences of losing their art or their family is never a significant stake from the audience's perspective.

Most importantly, however, we never believe in the relationship between the play's two characters. There is nothing in evidence to attract one to the other, short of the taste of alcohol on the lips and tongue. The elusive motivation prompts director David McClendon to lead Scott Allegrucci and Birgitta DePree too far over the top in an effort to overcompensate for Ty's and Donna's character deficiencies.

Part of the challenge comes in finding core characteristics to elevate in characters who are struggling near bottom with their addictive natures. Donna is scripted to be dishonest and elusive, and DePree emphasizes her tendency to hide behind masks and to withhold any semblance of sincerity. DePree's interpretation has a ring of instability to it, but her choices are justified in presenting a Donna who tries too hard to affect mannerisms, to be young and hip, to regain the sense of control she has long since lost to her addiction. While it is conceivable that these qualities may set off fireworks in the eyes of another addict like Ty, they do nothing for the audience. If anything, we are left further questioning Ty's character the deeper he involves himself with Donna.

It is Ty's story, and one way or another, he ultimately does change, though it is difficult to accept his climactic moment as a direct result of the play's treatment of his conflict. Allegrucci runs rampant with the character, fueling him with life and energy beyond the limitations of the script. It is no easy task to pull off a line like "I got her truthful note and I started drawing again," and although Cardinal does not succeed, Allegrucci does. Both Allegrucci and DePree rely on a trove of histrionics to broaden their characters, and Allegrucci makes Ty both frightening and vulnerable, abusive and victimized. He is able to reveal Ty's multidimensionality, in part because he has the gift of time alone onstage, when he can bring another perspective to Ty that would not be revealed in Donna's presence.

McClendon works hard to maintain a sense of a dramatic edge throughout the play, but he rarely finds the anticipated sharpness once penetrating beyond the level of superficiality. The love is undetectable, the addiction is handled with kid gloves, and the script uses the trappings of art as an even less-potent symbol than the house of cards Donna works on -- in her stay at the clinic, she is only able to finish the foundation, and only by using glue. The set is defined by Ty's artwork, using studies on canvas instead of flats and walls, and although Lindsay Ray's paintings make a captivating design, especially in underscoring Ty's obsession with his subject matter, the paintings miss the mark, capturing neither Donna's "truthful note" as a character nor Ty's visionary edge as a painter.

Perhaps the least appealing quality of the play is its insistence on dwelling in adolescent banter, treating issues of addiction and recovery with all the gravity and import of a junior-high-school mixer. To make matters worse, Cardinal heightens the discomfort by making his characters continually aware of their immaturity, and by having them repeatedly remind each other and us of this glaring characteristic, as if their emotional immaturity were as hard to identify as the romantic fire alluded to but never ignited.

Ultimately, the production cannot overcome its script. The play fails less for its trouble in finding answers than for its inability to pose the questions themselves. We learn little about art or addiction, and the entire romantic relationship is conveyed primarily through asides to the audience telling us that it was "electrifying" without ever showing us the sparks.

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