Moth&Flame: Audrey Moyce Responds

The opening beat of Moth&Flame (directed by Emma Rosa Went, produced by spit&vigor, running at The Center at West Park through April 21) is exciting: “Bless me, padre, for I have sinned. It’s been four hundred years since my last confession, and I have had impure thoughts about Agostino Tassi. […] about cutting his head off and setting it on a pike in my bedroom, then peeling the flesh off of his bones and carefully cleaning his skull to use as my personal goblet.” Suggestions of timeless spaces, Miss-Julie-ish rage, and as I knew from the program, taking up issues of sexual violence.

The protagonist is one I hadn’t previously heard of: Artemisia Gentileschi (played by Sara Fellini, who also wrote the piece), a painter in the vein of Caravaggio. Gentileschi was one of the most accomplished painters in the generation after him, but she gained notoriety due to her rape by and involvement in the court trial of Agostino Tassi, another such Italian painter. Fellini’s stage partner in Moth&Flame is Caravaggio himself, played by Adam Belvo.

Went’s direction is clear and sharp; stylized hand gestures and particular poses seemed reminiscent of the type of painting the two characters practiced. As the play continues, the actors use one another’s bodies as props in a way that seemed to hearken back to the implied reality-slippage from these opening lines.

But despite this promising beginning, the play dissolved for me shortly thereafter. Artemisia begins the play alone onstage, but she is soon joined by Caravaggio. However, though they seemed to be at least dimly aware of one another’s presence, they did not quite speak to one another. Instead they delivered monologues, it would seem, to their god: about what had happened to them, their life stories, why they felt respectively aggrieved and guilty.

Moreover, I could not discern what the two characters want from their god, much less each other. Yes, Caravaggio wants to atone for killing a man in cold blood, and yes, she dreams of exacting brutal revenge on her rapist, but the “purgatory” the setting claims they are in gives them no clear indication that anything they might do will get them out to a better place. Their impassioned declarations therefore come across like a melodramatic book report instead of two people needing to bear witness.  

I found Caravaggio’s presence especially confusing: though it is stated at the beginning that he has been “summoned” in some mysterious way, probably by Artemisia, it is unclear for what purpose. Towards the end, Artemisia relays the story of her testimony against Tassi. She is asked if she will stand by her statement “even under pain of torture,” if she will endure sibilli, cords tightened around your fingers until they cripple your hands.

She tells us that she thinks of Caravaggio, as she is giving her court testimony against Tassi. She thinks of how he lied compulsively, he “committed so many evil sins against God and nature, [he] was about to be pardoned by the pope’s own nephew when he died.” How he killed two men and yet his works are displayed prominently all over Italy.

The Wikipedia article about Artemisia Gentileschi notes that, despite her incredible skill and talent as a painter, her work has been unfortunately overshadowed by her victimhood. This show seemed to attempt to try and rectify that, and yet a significant portion of the play discussed said rape. And on some level this is unsurprising: sexual violence – even a belated description of it – is far more dramatic than cataloging a painter’s talents, no matter how extraordinary they may be. Maybe it is this unresolved tension that made such long descriptions of what happened seem unmotivated. Does Artemisia want to bear witness to what happened, or get people to shut up about it already? Though Fellini’s words may read as lyrical on the page, onstage they are murky and confusing; they embody a missed opportunity.

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