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Theater Review

New play chips away at the truth of 'The Sculptress'

By Mike Giuliano

3:38 PM EDT, July 13, 2011

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Playwrights sculpt language. Their linguistic craftsmanship, which will be on ample display this summer during the 30th annual Baltimore Playwrights Festival, is certainly present in Marilyn Millstone's "The Sculptress," right now at Fells Point Corner Theatre.

Millstone's biographical play concerns Camille Claudel, the French sculptor who served as the muse for her much older lover, the 19th-century sculptor Auguste Rodin. Her career was overshadowed by his, and she never psychologically recovered from the end of their love affair. Indeed, Camille's conservative Catholic family had this arguably unstable bohemian sculptress committed to an insane asylum in France.

The play is set in the asylum between 1935 and 1951, where an understandably angry Camille insists she has been locked away for the crime of scandalizing her uptight family. Zealously overseen by stern administrators and no-nonsense nuns who would be convincing as guards in a 1930s Warner Bros. prison picture, Camille is generally denied visitors. She also has stopped making sculpture, but her feverish mind is working overtime as she mulls over things that happened to her decades before.

Millstone has done her art-historical homework and written an intellectually engaging play that's clearly on the side of a woman artist whose talent was suppressed by the male establishment. Although the writing tends to be stilted, the biographical facts and corresponding polemical statements are persuasively conveyed.

The somewhat mannered dialogue ultimately does not hinder your appreciation of the issues raised by the play, but the narrative structure does cause problems. Millstone has broken the play down into numerous brief scenes, most of which are set in Camille's room at the asylum, an administrative office there, and the diplomatic office occupied by Camille's ambassador brother.

Although there is enough scripted logic to justify the many scene changes, the consequences include plenty of blackouts when the audience is given ample opportunity to listen to furniture being pushed around.

Without sacrificing any of the story strands, Millstone could find ways to fold several scenes into other scenes. If the play were given a tighter narrative structure, director Juliana Avery would have less traffic management to worry about. Also, there would be a more intense focus on the central confrontations that give the play dramatic heft.

As Camille, Karin Rosnizeck makes a striking visual impression. Her angular figure seems to reflect the nervous energy that finds Camille constantly darting about what amounts to a cell; and her untamed hair wildly flies around in a way that makes it seem like an extension of Camille's disordered thoughts.

Rosnizeck gives a highly disciplined performance as an artist whose exact mental condition is subject to debate. A German-born actor who now performs extensively in Washington, D.C., theaters, she's a strong presence as Camille. Although her admirably precise stage voice does not exactly betray a German accent, she doesn't exactly sound French, either. I'll bet a Euro that other audience members will also be mildly puzzled by the casting of this role.

In any event, Rosnizeck's confident performance does anchor the play. This actor is blessed to be playing a character who has dynamic confrontations with three other principal characters.

Camille's brother, Paul, (Stefan Aleksander) is a prominent writer and politician, who legally oversees her confinement. The playwright is at her best in the crafting of this character, because we're prompted to consider the seeming contradiction between Paul's humanitarian credentials as a Christian theologian and his seemingly harsh treatment of Camille. This fascinating character is bracingly brought to life by Aleksander, who really brings out the mean ramifications of Paul's devotion to upholding bourgeois decorum.

Camille also interacts with the strict asylum administrator, Genevieve Renat (Ellie Nicoll); and with a young Spanish surrealist artist, Remedios Varo (Yagmur Muftuoglu), whose visits to the asylum please Camille and eventually anger Paul.

Camille's long confinement in the asylum may not give this play much latitude in terms of moving forward or even just moving around, but it's a character study that is moving in other ways.

"The Sculptress" continues weekends through July 31 at Fells Point Corner Theatre, at 251 S. Ann St., in Baltimore. Performances are Thursday, Friday and Saturday, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, at 7 p.m. There are no performances July 22 and 23. Tickets are $12. Call 410-276-7837 or go to http://www.fpct.org.