By Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association
Though a live theatre version of Tom Stoppard’s 1972 radio play Artist Descending a Staircase does exist, the original fits so perfectly into today’s theatrical (non-)world that it is no surprise that Remy Bumppo Theatre chose it for production. The play is a humorous, romantic, and even tragic examination of the definition of art disguised as a murder mystery of the weirdest kind: the only two possible suspects spend the play accusing each other of having committed the crime.
Directed by James Bohnen, the play focuses on three old artists who have been friends for more than half a century. At the start (through audio imagery created by Christopher Kriz), we witness one of them (Donner, played in flashback by Peter A. Davis) awaken in the middle of the night and somehow fall to his death from the top of a long staircase, leaving his lifelong companions to figure out what happened. Beauchamp (Nick Sandys), whose current artwork involves recording and manipulating sounds, has accidentally recorded the event, during which we can hear the unfortunate Donner surprised to meet someone on the landing before his fall. Both Beauchamp and Martello (Annabel Armour) insist that the other is lying about not having pushed their friend off, and—through a series of Inception-like flashbacks within flashbacks—we see (well, hear) important moments of their lives played out, especially those connected to a young blind woman named Sophie (Aurora Real De Asua) who once was a love interest for both Beauchamp and Donner.
It’s less confusing than it sounds, and anyway the murder mystery itself is a bit of a red herring, as the play’s actual intention is to explore what it means to be an artist. All three lifelong friends argue good-naturedly about whether what each of them is doing even qualifies as art. (Kriz even gets a rare opportunity to really show off as Beauchamp lets them hear his latest creation, a sound collage that he is very proud of.) They criticize and comment on each other’s work in the way that old friends might: unafraid to speak their minds because they know their comrades won’t be too offended (at least for long).
Strong performances by all four actors take us along for this witty, enjoyable ride into Stoppard’s redoubtable mind in an early play that presages his later, more well-known work. If you would. like to experience it—and I recommend that you do—the play is free but you will need to register, and it is being presented only through April 18.