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Raising questions on art, life Theater review: Text, movement and music meld seamlessly in play about Marcel Duchamp.


Because of inaccurate information supplied by the theater company, the wrong composer was named in Saturday's edition for Mother Lode Productions' "The Mysteries and What's So Funny?" at the Theatre Project. The music, based on themes from Philip Glass' original score, was composed by David Rona, musical director, and Jon Perry, co-writer and arranger.

The Sun regrets the errors.

"My life has been my art -- my art, my life," the actor playing Marcel Duchamp says in "The Mysteries and What's So Funny?" a work that proves Duchamp's point by adroitly blending reality and art.

This fascinating play interweaves the biography of the iconoclastic modern artist Duchamp with that of the parents of its playwright, David Gordon. It also raises a slew of challenging questions ranging from "What is the nature of art?" and "Does art have a function?" to "How do two people stay together?

This might sound like didactic material, and Gordon's fragmented script could make for a choppy evening. But at the Theatre Project, Mother Lode Productions tackles it with nearly seamless artistry.

Whether the credit belongs to director Joe Brady, choreographer Karen Bradley or musicians David Rona and Jon Perry, who perform the Philip Glass score, I couldn't begin to say; that's how neatly the text, movement and music meld together.

When you enter the theater, the actors are already milling about. Then a trapezoidal door is rolled on stage, the actors pass through it, and the piece begins.

Seeing the actors as themselves before we see them as characters reinforces the link between art and life. This is further emphasized by occasional use of scripts as props and, most prominently, the use of giant picture frames to literally frame some scenes.

There's a lot of playfulness, which is highly appropriate for Duchamp. Probably best known for his machine-like painting "Nude Descending a Staircase," Duchamp also created irreverent works called "ready-mades." Included among these were a urinal titled "Fountain" and, most scandalously, a photo of the "Mona Lisa" with mustache and goatee.

In the first half of "The Mysteries," Duchamp -- affably played by Tim Marrone -- fills us in on his background with the aid of a slide show. This is far from a standard biographical narrative, however. There are frequent passages of choral speech, and cast members portray multiple characters -- an actress, for example, briefly portrays Duchamp's father.

In addition, a trench-coated Detective (Shannon Hepburn) keeps firing those big questions about art at Duchamp. At first these feel stilted, but as the play progresses, the Detective appears to be the playwright's alter ego, as does another character, called "Young Artist" (Carmel Lewis) -- a protege of Duchamp's, who echoes his words.

Meanwhile, the playwright's parents are portrayed in their dotage by Mary Ann Walsh and Bruce Nelson, as a devoted husband and wife who spend most of their time in armchairs on a platform that's rolled on and off. Their story takes up much of the second act and is augmented by several other sets of actors -- a pair portraying their younger selves; another pair portraying the troubled flip side of marriage; and three expressive dancers identified as "Angers."

Though some of this activity seems extraneous, it's eventually tied to Duchamp. After all, no one was better at proving that the extraneous, not to mention the mundane and ridiculous, can also be art. And vice versa. In other words, we're back to the theme of life imitating art.

Mother Lode's "The Mysteries and What's So Funny?" marks the debut of the Theatre Project's redefined mission, focusing on local work. If this piece is indicative of the level of talent to come, those accustomed to the theater's previous international avant-garde offerings can expect little diminution of daring or execution.

'The Mysteries and What's So Funny?'

Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; through Nov. 5 Tickets: $14

Call: (410) 752-8558

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