Weaving disparate stories and art forms into one cohesive work, the latest from Macha Theatre Works makes for an inventive and beautiful play — and a fitting ode to an artist known for her vivid paintings. Blood Water Paint runs through October 6.
I tell my story every time I pick up a paintbrush.
— Artemisia Gentileschi in Blood Water Paint
Blood Water Paint, the play turned bestselling novel by local author Joy McCullough, imagines the great 17th-century artist Artemisia Gentileschi as she paints in her studio and guides her 10-year-old daughter. As Gentileschi paints, she’s visited by villains from her past and the heroes who inspire her present resolve.
(Read NWT’s interview with the playwright, Joy McCullough, here.)
Gentileschi’s (real-life) story is a wrenching one. After the death of her mother, she was commandeered by her father into the family trade as a teenager and, already showing more promise than he had talent, to paint his commissions under his name. It was an easy-kept secret; no one expected women to be capable artists at the time anyway. As her talent began to draw attention nonetheless, another man — a teacher, hired by her father — cajoled her trust, then raped her. She took the unusual step of prosecuting him — at a time when complainants’ stories were tested by torture, and rapists of stature got off scot-free.
McCullough’s efficient, 80-minute play sketches out the milestones. But what stands out most is its ability to weave three disparate stories together fully into one narrative, in which the tales feel surprisingly natural together.
The play is about Gentileschi. But it is also about two women whose acts of defiance were largely silenced, their stories split out from the Hebrew and Protestant bibles and designated apocryphal status. Perhaps not-so-coincidentally, both were, like Gentileschi, strong women who attained their causes in spite of men: Judith, who empowered her beleaguered people in battle by wooing, then beheading, an enemy captain; and Susanna, who took the unheard-of step of prosecuting men who assaulted her in her own garden.
As McCullough envisions it, in Gentileschi’s time of greatest need, these women come to her — bringing their stories, suffering, victories and resolve along with them. Gentileschi returns the favor by telling their stories, vividly, with her paint. And those stories in turn will keep her name among the greats; Judith Slaying Holofernes and Susanna and the Elders are among her best-known works.
The mythical mashup envisions the two inspiring one another — life to paintings, painting to life. Macha’s production never shows images of the paintings themselves, which can be found readily online. (An earlier production, by the same director for a different company — more on that below — apparently did.) Instead, with the wonders of live theatre, it did one better. As their stories unfold on stage, Gentileschi is at work in her studio, nearby, watching them; and when their pose is almost right, she adjusts them, then returns to her easel for the finishing touches. Their resemblance to the masterworks is obvious. It’s a vivid device; a photo flash, on canvas and on stage.
Macha’s staging of it is inventive and well-crafted. The set, by Parmida Ziaei, is stunning in its open simplicity: a large wooden window frame, a small stage, an empty picture frame as an easel. Two red silks, suspended from some 20 feet up, frame the stage and hint at things to come. Dim lighting casts well-placed shadows and gives off a gothic effect. Thoughtful costuming, by Jocelyne Fowler, completed most of the characters. (Exceptions were the costuming for actor-aerialists playing Judith and Susanna — basically, modern workout clothes — which never seemed to fit the picture.)
The cast here is equally successful. As Gentileschi, lead Bianca Raso carries a softness demanded of the times but conveys, above all, a steely resolve. Bolstering her are Meredith Armstrong and Leah Jarvik (as Judith and Susanna, respectively), actor-aerialists who ascend and descend the silks, showing strength in their physicality and fortitude alongside Gentileschi when she needs it. And supporting all of them is Alysha Curry, who capably plays three disparate characters, including Gentileschi’s 10-year-old daughter, unencumbered by the baggage that life has wrought on the others — a symbol of the freedom without backwards expectations of gender. Curry adds layers of lightness and humor into a play which needs them; and Raso as Gentileschi gets a couple of barbs, with a drier wit, in as well.
Envy not the male actors in this cast, who both play slimeballs. Orazio (Michael D. Blum, reprising his role from the earlier production), is Gentileschi’s demeaning and demanding father. But he has glints of positive, supporting her cause at the time when she needs a man to believe her the most; and Blum conveys the nuance well. His Orazio has the auras of both predator and protector. Tim Gagne’s characters, in contrast — chiefly the teacher who raped Gentileschi (Agostino Tassi), the captain who Judith beheaded (Holofernes), and one of the creeps pursuing Susanna — are pure slimy entitlement, which he pulls off well (a dubious honor, no doubt).
McCullough has woven a tapestry rich with strong female characters who, though separated by millennia, have a natural affinity as inspirations to one another. And it’s a natural fit for Macha Theatre Works, which “envisions a world where fearless female voices thrive.”
Amy Poisson, Macha’s Artistic Director, also directed the play. Poisson is no stranger to McCullough’s work, or even to this piece; she directed Blood Water Paint in a production for Live Girls! Theater in 2015, before taking the helm at Macha. (Poisson also directed McCullough’s Smoke and Dust, for Macha in 2017.) She’s envisioned aerialist-actors, she recalls, since she first got the script. But the company was faced with a last-minute change of venue, and the ceilings at the new venue — Theatre Off Jackson, the basement theatre in the International District — were too low to accommodate any aerial work. So Poisson’s vision was shelved, but not forgotten.
Her seasoning with the work comes through in this version, where the staging reveals both a thoughtfulness and efficiency that allows the piece’s many layers to build and weave, resulting in a rich tapestry that’s over, improbably, in only 80 minutes.
It feels much richer, and its effect lingers long after that. Blood Water Paint is, it seems, a play everyone is talking about. You’d be remiss not to join the conversation.
Beginning October 17, Seattleites have the rare opportunity to see one of Artemisia Gentileschi’s best-known paintings in person. The Seattle Art Museum will show Judith Slaying Holofernes, one of the key works in Blood Water Paint, as part of its Flesh and Blood: Italian Masterpieces from the Capodimonte Museum exhibit (featuring “40 works of fierce beauty from the High Renaissance and Baroque periods”), through January 2020.
We suggest catching the layered theatrical interpretation from Macha Theatre, now in its final week, then seeing one of its key inspirations up close.
Blood Water Paint runs through 10/6 at 12th Avenue Arts on Capitol Hill. Tickets $25, available here. For showtimes, visit Calendar page. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gendered and multi-stall, with one nearby gender-neutral, single-stall restroom available by key code. Financial accessibility: pay-what-you-can performances on Wednesday nights. Theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.