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Artist Descending a Staircase

by Tom Stoppard
directed by Terry McCabe

May 13- June17, 2001.

Broutil & Frothingham Productions
The Theatre Building
1225 W. Belmont
Chicago, Illinois
(773) 327-5252

Riddles abound in Broutil and Frothingham's production of Tom Stoppard's 1972 radio play, ARTIST DESCENDING A STAIRCASE. There is a murder mystery at the center of the play: did the dead artist in question descend the stairs with or without assistance? This puzzle is resolved with typical Stoppard devious cleverness. However, this production presents an even greater, and finally insoluable, riddle: why did Broutil & Frothingham Productions stage the perfect radio play? Overlaying the elements of physical staging, the costumes, lighting, setting, and props, upon the radio script did not enhance the power of ARTIST DESCENDING A STAIRCASE.

The potency of sound is the quintessence of the radio play. The setting, characters, plot, and theme are conveyed to the audience through sound. Radio play sound has eight elements: word [dialogue], voice, music, silence, pause, distance, radiophonic effects, and technical effects. ARTIST DESCENDING A STAIRCASE is a perfect radio play because sound is not simply a device; it is an integral element of the plot: "sound effect is used as the frame of the story." Jan Flittner, "Sound Effects in Tom Stoppard's Radio Plays," Albert-Ludwigs-Universitâât Freibing, 2000. In ARTIST DESCENDING A STAIRCASE, the usual action of involvement of any radio play audience in solving the puzzle of identifying sound effects and using their imagination in constructing the setting mirrors the action of this play: solving the puzzle of what happened to Donner, the fallen artist.

The play begins with sounds: an unidentifiable droning noise, footsteps, silence, i.e. the cessation of the droning and the footsteps, an exclamation--"Ah, there you are!"--, two footsteps, a thump, "Donner's cry, the cracking of the wooden balustrade, the sound of Donner falling heavily down the stairs to a final "sickening" thump, and then silence." Natalie Crohn Schmitt, "Window/Picture: L'assassin menace and Artist Descending a Staircase," Critical Essay, Fall, 1999, p. 13. Martello and Beauchamp enter and discover their attic studio roommate of 50 years, Donner, at the bottom of the staircase. The first sounds of the play, have been recorded on a reel-to-reel tape loop by Beauchamp, who is a sound artist interested in the sounds of daily living. The loop plays continuously during the first scene as the roommates, and the audience, attempt to decipher the sounds. Martello and Beauchamp deduce that the droning was Donner snoring, that the droning stopped because Donner was awakened by his murderer's footsteps, that Donner knew his killer because of his greeting, and that the killer dealt his victim a blow and caused him to fall through the balustrade and down the stairs to his death. The roommates accuse each other of the deed because Donner was a recluse and would not have greeted any stranger so calmly.

The action of the next ten scenes reveals whodunit. The scenes form their own time loop--they begin and end in 1972 on the summer afternoon of Donner's fall. But between scenes one and eleven, the action flashes back to the past lives, in 1914, 1920, and 1922, of the three artist friends and their involvement with a blind woman, Sophie. The play is quite symmetrical with each flashback presented in two parts: "There are 11 scenes. The play begins on a day in the early 1970's; the next five scenes are each a flashback from the previous scene: the seventh, eight, ninth, tenth, and 11th scenes are, respectively, continuations of the fifth, fourth, third, second, and first. So the play is set temporally in six parts, in the sequence ABCDEFEDCBA. "Synopsis of Scenes," Stagebill, May 2001, p. 11.

Each of the settings--the 1972 attic studio, a room in 1920's Lambeth, England, on the road in 1914 France during WWI--have sounds that identify them: the master tape loop, accordion music, ping-pong game, horses, buzzing flies. In exploring a possible motive for the crime, the flashbacks present Donner's obsession with Sophie, his sculpture of her made of sugar cubes with teeth of pearls occupies a special place in the studio; Sophie's infatuation with Beauchamp and rejection of Donner; Sophie's accidental fall from a window, a "tragic defenestration"; the three friends' early 20th century tour of Europe debating their radical concepts of art.

But despite any insight from the flashbacks, when the action moves back to 1972, Beauchamp and Martello have not solved the mystery. They never do. However, the audience does. With typical Stoppard trickery, the answer to the riddle lies not in the romantic past but in the all too mundane present. In scene ten, a few hours before the mysterious event, Donner and Beauchamp are plagued by a pesky fly in the studio. Perhaps, the audience realizes in a flash, the tape has recorded a fly buzzing, not Donner snoring; Donner's footsteps stalking the fly, not a murdered stalking Donner; Donner's sighting of the fly, not his recognition of a known killer; and Donner's unassisted fall down the stairs as he unsuccessfully tries to capture his prey? Beauchamp reenacts this scenario as he too attempts to swat the fly near the balustrade; but, he catches himself before a fatal fall. In the final scene, Beauchamp, is taping over the undeciperable sounds. He wants a "clean loop." .

Stoppard wrote ARTIST DESCENDING A STAIRCASE for the BBC as a play that "had to be" for radio rather than the stage. Richard Mayne, "Arts Commentary," edited by Paul Delaney, Tom Stoppard in Conversation, University of Michigan Press, 1994. 34. In 1988, the playwright reissued the original version of the play with added staging directions that the text suggested. "Author's Note," Artist Descending a Staircase. London: Faber, 1988. But, any staging of this play would diminish its power. See Elissa S. Guralnick, "Artist Descending a Staircase: Stoppard Captures the Radio Station--and Duchamp," PMLA 105.2 (1990): 286-300. Paradoxically, giving the audience the ability to see the characters, settings, and action, lessens their ability to concentrate on the sounds that form the central riddle of the play. Broutil & Frothingham's stage production of ARTIST DESCENDING A STAIRCASE not only diminishes the power of the play, it eviscerates it.

A radio play audience is continually engaged in overcoming their inability to see, their blindness, like Sophie. As the sounds invokes their imagination, an audience creates their own staging. When that staging is provided by the actors and director and designers, it should be synchronized with the sound effects to heighten the audience's understanding and enjoyment of the play as written by the dramatist. This stage production is out of sync all too often. Although, the play begins on a very hopeful note. The set, lighting, and sound effects experienced by the audience before "the curtain" are ingenuous and intriguing--in the spirit of Stoppard. The basic set suggests the front of an old-fashioned radio with its curves and grill. Inside the radio superstructure are the three settings of the play: the artists' studio on the left, the apartments in England on the right, and the French countryside downstage. The pre-curtain sound includes common, recognizable sound effects and music from the time periods in the play.

Yet, after the play begins, the "tape gag" drama collides with the staging. The tape loop that plays continually through the first scene is also physically present on the stage--wound between two tape reels mounted on the wall of the studio. But the physical tape does not revolve so smoothly; its erratic movement is quite distracting. Even though all the settings are on the stage, the actors must move between them. The movement of the actors from scene to scene, from present to past to present, is inartfully blocked, even in black-out silhouette. Their movement is much slower than the flight of the audience's imagination. The solution of the mystery is unknowingly acted out by Beauchamp as he lunges at the pesky fly and almost topples over the balustrade and down the stairs. But this stage business occurs after the audience has pieced together the clues of the playscript.

However, the essential problem with this stage production of ARTIST DESCENDING A STAIRCASE is actually seeing the four characters. First the voice identification of the individual characters has been subordinated to costumes, makeup, and broad physical gestures. The portrayal of the 70 year old artists is amateurish and so distracting that Stoppard's witty dialogue regarding the arts movements, politics, friendship is not conveyed even with eyes wide shut. The actors seem to believe that powder in the hair to effect graying, stooped shoulders, tremulous voices, and lines delivered with a peevish edge are the only elements needed for portrayal of their characters in old age. The scenes of their youth, with Sophie, are more believable; but the costuming and gesticulating is not individualized enough to atone for the common voice of all three. It is as difficult to distinguish between the three as it is to fathom how the Sophie that is presented on the stage engendered Donner's 50 year obsession.

Broutil & Frothingham's stage production of ARTIST DESCENDING A STAIRCASE runs only 85 minutes. During the performance, there was quite a bit of restlessness and actual movement of various audience members, withdrawing and returning. It was easier to tear oneself away from this stage production--physically, intellectually, and emotionally--than it ever would be to disengage from the radio play and the sounds of the imagination.


--Sandra Marie Lee

ARTIST DESCENDING A STAIRCASE. Broutil & Frothingham Productions presents Tom Stoppard's one-act comedy. Theatre Building, 1225 W. Belmont, 773-327-5252. Through June 17: Thursdays-Saturdays, 8:15 PM; Sundays, 3 PM. $22-$26.

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