VST takes a trip to a “Museum”

Thomas Emerson

“Museum” by Tina Howe most definitely is about museums and the art one finds in them. In fact, it’s filled with every cliché of modern art: the series of paintings that look the same, but have different titles; the rack of installation art; the display of “found” art.

But I think “Museum” is, more importantly, about its subtitle: “Life on Display.” After all, when the photographer (played by Michael Wall) finds that he doesn’t have permission to take pictures of the art, he starts photographing the guard (played by Shaun Malleck, whose eccentric comic turns always delight me) instead.

But Tina Howe reveals that by turning to the guard, the photographer’s not settling for the second best thing – he’s getting the best, the reality that the images on the museum’s walls only attempt to portray.

As one character says, a museum’s quality depends upon the view through its windows: great art points the way to the beauty of the real world, not to itself.

In Tina Howe’s museum, we find a challenge to look away from what’s hanging on the walls to the more beautiful reality it represents: the humanity that most art snobs go to the museum to escape. In her museum, the patrons are the art.

But if Howe’s characters are the art in “Museum”, then the play’s success depends upon having a director with a museum curator’s eye for presentation. Noelle Nettle’s eye was up to the job. Just as my museum snobbery leads me to expect certain behaviors in an exhibition hall, I come to the theatre expecting certain things from a show: a beautiful production, clear intention, and a cogent, challenging vision.

And like a seven-course dinner, Ms. Nettle’s direction left me more than satisfied: her production throbbed with a comic energy that left nary a dull moment, and the intentions of the actors under her care were so specific they sparkled like a set of fine Waterford crystal. This is exactly what Villanova’s undergraduates so desperately need: directors of Ms. Nettle’s caliber who know how to make their talent shine.

Here, VST certainly does its share of shining. Standouts were Ryan Gabriele and Andrew Pucci as the hilarious, smooth-talking, art connoisseurs; Sarah Reisert, whose silent stalking evoked Buster Keaton in his prime; Tiffany Wagner and Liz McElwee, whose twittering could easily have topped the crazed banter of the “Pick-a-Little” ladies of “The Music Man.” Perhaps the only fault of Tine Howe’s script is that it doesn’t give enough stage time to her hilarious creations. And I wanted more, for the actors who fleshed out those creations created an artwork I’d willingly go see again and again.

But on the night I attended, St. Mary’s auditorium was strangely empty. This was certainly not a fault of VST’s publicity department, which blanketed the campus with a flurry of fliers. No, it’s a fault of our campus culture: why spend an evening in the basement of St. Mary’s when there’s a frat party in Rudolph?

And part of the blame for this culture must be directed towards our campus administrators who consistently refuse to erect a performing arts facility. Apparently, they think the work of our undergraduates is not worth their time or their money.

Perhaps they should go see “Museum.” As one of the characters notes, art is part of each and every one of us – not something separate we have to seek out. Great art is here, on this campus, being created in St. Mary’s basement. It’s just waiting to be recognized.

Bravo, VST.