Lee Kiszonas’s drama Artemisia, about Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1656), explores an intriguing alternate history for the woman. It premieres at South Camden Theatre Company, a small, comfortable theater built from a shuttered bar. This world premiere launches a season of plays by women that also includes Sharyn Rothstein’s By the Water (September 7 to 23) and Lynn Nottage’s Crumbs from the Table of Joy (November 2 to 18).
Artemisia, explains playwright Kiszonas (who also directed) in a program note, openly alters history for theatrical effect and in hope of a more satisfying 21st-century outcome.
Girls vs. boys
Nicole Henderson plays Artemisia at an uncertain age. She’s too old to be the virgin teen suggested, yet still subject to the will of her father Orazio (Aaron Roberge), who arranges for Artemisia to marry artist Tassi (Dam Verdon) without her consent.
“Your father says you’re a precocious genius,” says middle-aged Tassi condescendingly. “I’m prepared to be impressed.” But he’s not, of course.
In Kiszonas’s revision, Artemisia meets free-spirited courtesan/thief/con artist Susanna (Mariel Rosati), sparking a forbidden romance. Artemisia invites Susanna home so they can shield each other from Tassi’s advances — which are now constant, because Orazio invites Tassi to live with them.
Danger lurks everywhere. “An unmarried woman who mixes potions,” says Susanna to Artemis, who has mastered the art of making paints, “can be burned as a witch.”
Susanna arms herself with a knife acquired from bartender Tarquina (Sheila Walker-Kurilla). Her daughter Prudenzia (McKenzie Jones Clifford) is fascinated by Susanna.
Secrets are revealed; vows are tested. Ultimately the play becomes a showdown between the women — all subjugated and victimized by men in cruel ways — and Tassi, the symbol of misogynistic male privilege.
Director vs. playwright
Director Kiszonas’s production doesn’t serve playwright Kiszonas’s vision well, alas. Some interesting decisions, like having characters repeat lines in whispers during scene changes, don’t build suspense the way more straightforward music cues would. Instead, they sound like affirmations recited by zombies. The play’s many short scenes don’t build in either act, even as the sexual and physical violence (staged by Jeff Moorhead) grows in intensity.
Fussy furniture-moving scene changes on Robert Bingaman’s rustic two-level set hinder pacing. But the acting doesn’t build convincingly either; the actors are tentative about both physical and emotional violence.
Kiszonas places key moments downstage, where sight lines make visibility a strain for many in SCTC’s small space, and lighting designer Joshua Samors compensates unsuccessfully with lurid colors. Playwright Kiszonas also needed dramaturgical help to better handle Orazio, who disappears in Act II; further develop Tarquina and Prudenzia; and consolidate the many small scenes that end listlessly.
Still intriguing, though, are Kiszonas’s decisions about Artemisia. Her play’s bloody finale suggests a momentarily satisfying but probably career- and life-ending event. History, however, reveals a courageous young woman who fought against Tassi’s abuses by legal means and won, then enjoyed a long artistic career.
What’s the more powerful feminist story: violent revenge or the satisfaction of a life well lived and a legacy far exceeding her tormenter’s? The former, at least, should be more exciting than Artemisia proves to be.
What, When, Where
Artemisia. Written and directed by Lee Kiszonas. Through May 20, 2018, at the South Camden Theatre Company, 400 Jasper Street, Camden, New Jersey. (866) 811-4111 or southcamdentheatre.org.