'Interrogating the Nude' finds flip side of serious art movement

October 01, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Recognized as the father of the Dadaist movement in moder art, French artist Marcel Duchamp could be called "Dada's dada."

If that sobriquet sounds silly and a little flip, well, so was Duchamp. After all, one of his claims to fame was that he was the first person to paint a mustache on a reproduction of the "Mona Lisa."

With such things in mind, it seems perfectly fitting that Doug Wright's "Interrogating the Nude," which is receiving its area premiere at AXIS Theatre, is also silly and flip.

But just as there was a serious agenda behind Duchamp's pranks, so there is a similar agenda to this play, directed with appropriately reverent irreverence by Brian Klaas.

Set in a New York police station in 1913, this highly amusing, clever script uses a jail cell as an overt metaphor for artistic repression -- a subject that, sadly, is as topical today as it was when Teddy Roosevelt described Duchamp's masterpiece, "Nude Descending a Staircase," as "immoral."

Deliberately playing fast and loose with the facts, the playwright has concocted a film noir-style murder mystery about the dismemberment of a woman named Rose Selavy. The crime is reported by Duchamp, played by a comically hyper, wild-eyed Jack Manion, whose thick Pepe LePew French accent regrettably obscures some of his pun-laden dialogue.

The frantic artist informs the police inspector -- Rodney Atkins as a suitably literal-minded, slow-on-the-uptake flatfoot -- that Selavy (Chris T. Clegg in drag) was not only his model, lover and muse, but he volunteers the information that, zut alors!, she was also his twin. Duchamp then proceeds to implicate his best friend, the photographer Man Ray (Trevor Michaels), who took pictures of Selavy, or at least of various parts of her body.

You don't have to be up on your art history, or even to have seen Man Ray's photographs of Selavy, to realize there's something fishy about Duchamp's account of her violent demise. Her name alone, which is pronounced "c'est la vie," should prompt suspicions.

However, when Man Ray shows up at the station house and warns the inspector that Duchamp "makes a living off his fantasies," the remark only reinforces the policeman's theory that he's dealing with perverts and pornographers.

We know, of course, that he's dealing with artists, but then, this is a distinction that still causes trouble, particularly among right-wing, self-appointed protectors of our nation's morals.

With its campy melodramatics, puns, double entendres and cross-dressing, "Interrogating the Nude" is reminiscent of the work of the late Charles Ludlam, whose "The Mystery of Irma Vep" was produced at Center Stage in 1991. And, like Ludlam's work, "Interrogating the Nude" pokes fun at social mores by laughing with -- not at -- art.

AXIS' production will probably gain some necessary slickness as the run continues, but it's already a daring attempt at a daringly cunning production that makes exactly as much sense -- and as much delightful nonsense -- as Dada itself.

"Interrogating the Nude"

Where: AXIS Theatre, Meadow Mill, 3600 Clipper Mill Road

When: Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. (No performances Oct. 3, 7 and 21). Through Oct. 31

Tickets: $10 and $12

Call: (410) 243-5237

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