In ages-old scandal, a modern lesson Storyteller: The 17-century rape of painter Artemesia Gentileschi forms a canvas for determined playwright.

November 08, 1995|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Even as a young woman, Artemesia Gentileschi was a painter of astonishing talent. Then the Baroque artist was raped by her teacher, and her father insisted on pressing charges. It was a point of honor for him, a public humiliation for her.

Cathy Caplan detected a play in Gentileschi's story while reading a biography of her in 1991. Here was a "great, successful working woman," who became as well known for a public scandal as her art. The trial of her accused rapist, Agostino Tassi, was a spectacle that gripped 17th-century Rome.

The Baltimore-born Ms. Caplan plunged into Gentileschi's life, one rich with contradictions, contemporary parallels and irony, and pulled out "Lapis Blue, Blood Red." The play, presented by the Baltimore-based Splitting Image Theatre Company, will premiere tonight at the Theatre Project.

As a film editor and now as a playwright, Ms. Caplan, 35, revels in the opportunity to "tell the story you feel is beneath the surface" of historical figures and events -- even if it takes four years to mine the story.

It is her mission to sink her mind into a tough subject and not let go until she finds the story within. As she sifts, distills, sculpts, gradually the material yields that story, the way a chunk of marble yields a statue.

Her tenacity has paid off before. Ms. Caplan spent seven years editing "American Dream," filmmaker Barbara Kopple's 1990 account of a strike by workers at a Hormel meatpacking plant. The film won an Academy Award for best documentary.

As a student at Roland Park Country School, Ms. Caplan "didn't do anything she wasn't keenly interested in," says her former English teacher, Anne Heuisler. "She always did it for her own reasons, not anybody else's."

Ms. Caplan majored in film at Barnard College and had no writing aspirations until she did a script for her own short film based on a slice of Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past." During that project, Ms. Caplan discovered she could write dialogue.

"You have to become that character to write the words they say," she says. It was a revelation for Ms. Caplan, ever ready to explore new storytelling paths.

Inspired by the "great narrative" of the trial of Gentileschi's rapist, Ms. Caplan wrote the play in the New York City loft she shares with her husband, also a filmmaker, and young son.

She made the best of waiting for a jury duty assignment by attending sex-crime trials, where she witnessed families feuding over a victim's honor and jaded cops revealing the intimate details of the assault. The proceedings conjured a timeless urgency that she applied to the 17th-century trial.

"I struggled to make it very modern," Ms. Caplan says.

To get a feel for the way Gentileschi and her contemporaries worked, Ms. Caplan attended classes at a New York art school where students are steeped in Renaissance technique.

Ms. Caplan also "stared at [Gentileschi's] paintings long enough to get psychological insight into them." While the artist's copy of "Susanna and the Elders" was rife with "terror and vulnerability," her father's previous interpretation, was, in contrast, more akin to "soft porn" in its depiction of men leering at the oblivious Susanna while she bathed.

In the same respect, Gentileschi's fury over her rape is revealed in "Judith Slaying Holofernes," in which the subject dispassionately severs her victim's head. In Judith's murderous resolve, Ms. Caplan finds the artist's "mythical revenge," sought in an era when women had little recourse for avenging their shame.

In Ms. Caplan's play, we see Gentileschi as a young woman, shaken and emotionally ambiguous about her rapist. Gentileschi appears as an older, wiser woman in alternating scenes. Still the zealous painter, she has also become an overbearing mother to Prudentia, who serves as her model and scribe. Gentileschi emerges in Ms. Caplan's work as a complex, imperfect woman whose gifts and quandaries address ageless matters of humanity.

As she wrote "Lapis Blue," Ms. Caplan had the ear of several notable playwrights. Tina Howe told her to bridge the historical distance by rendering the story more immediate.

After a year of revision, Ms. Caplan's play was accepted for further development in a Juilliard acting class under the direction of playwrights Terrance McNally and John Guare.

With their guidance, Ms. Caplan enriched her play by exploiting more fully the parallels she found between Gentileschi's youth and middle age.

As the closely knit Juilliard acting ensemble read her words, Ms. Caplan drew a stronger portrait of Gentileschi's relationship with her family.

Serendipitously, Splitting Image was scouting for new plays when "Lapis Blue" was completed. The theater company's board members were struck by the work's maturity and scope.

It is "a really amazing meditation on the role of women in Baroque painting and women in art, and women's voices not being heard," says Jim Magruder, a Splitting Image board member and resident dramaturge at Center Stage. "And when I discovered [Gentileschi] was real, I was even more impressed."

Grasping the persistence that is necessary to tell a complex story, Ms. Caplan says, is a "great lesson" learned from Ms. Kopple, who refused to let go of the Hormel documentary, despite its untold ambiguities and contradictions.

Stories with no clear-cut heroes and villains are that much more important to tell because they challenge the pat plots that prevail in popular culture. The Hormel strike, the life of Artemesia Gentileschi: These are the kinds of stories that "tell us about ourselves, [show] what else is there, help us to see where we are," Ms. Caplan says.

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