Though I took a few art-history classes in college, I never learned the incredible story of Artemisia Gentileschi. I don't have to think too hard to understand why.
One of the few (known) successful women painters of the 17th century, Gentileschi was famous for depicting women as they are and not as men would like them to be.
She was also famous for bringing her rapist to justice during an excruciating seven-month trial, which included the use of a particularly gruesome 17th-century lie detector called a thumbkin. Justices forced Gentileschi to tell the story of her rape as they crushed her fingers with the special thumbscrew. They had to make sure she wasn't lying about her teacher, the painter Agostino Tassi, raping her, even though a false allegation would have ended her life.
With the FBI failing to investigate newly revealed claims of sexual harassment and assault against Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh, and with the Senate Democrats batting down calls for Kavanaugh's impeachment for purely political reasons, a remounting of a play about Gentileschi feels timely, if only to reinforce the timelessness of her story.
And you'd think Macha Theatre Works would be the company to do it, given their mission to produce great shows for, by, and about women. But while the story was certainly worth telling, most of the directorial choices weren't worth enduring. Confidential to directors: Any time you ask your actors to stare into the crowd and say a single line at the same time to really drive home the theme, please don't.
In Blood Water Paint, which runs at 12th Avenue Arts through October 6, playwright Joy McCullough weaves together the story of Gentileschi's early career with the stories of the subjects from two of her paintings, Judith Slaying Holofernes and Susanna and the Elders. The former painting depicts the biblical story of Judith beheading the Assyrian general bound to destroy her village, and the latter depicts another biblical scene of two men spying on a bathing woman who is absolutely not having it.
These two women counsel and comfort Gentileschi, giving her strength and inspiration as she battles the patriarchy in her own time. Though McCullough's reliance on painting metaphors feels overdetermined, her point is clear and good: Since the beginning of Western civilization, men have used violence to systematically subordinate women, and they will continue to do so. In order to fight back, feminists must support women in their choices to speak out or not to speak out about the abuse, and they must do what they can to ensure that the male gaze isn't the default cultural perspective.
To underscore this link between women across time, director Amy Poisson hangs scarlet aerial silks from the ceiling and has the actors perform flips and contortions as they deliver monologues. The actors (Leah Jarvik and Meredith Armstrong, who otherwise turn in strong performances) admirably nail their choreography, but the effect is just kind of cheesy and too matchy-matchy. Bianca Raso's Artemisia is full of verve and wit and determination, and Alysha Curry's comedic timing is on point as Prudenzia. But in the performance I saw, Tim Gagne was a little wooden as Agostino. He comes off less like a failed Machiavelli and more like an annoying steampunk gamer.
While it's hard to recommend the play, McCullough's novel-in-verse adaptation was long-listed for the National Book Award in 2018—so maybe pick up the book, instead?