The last spoken words in "Lapis Blue, Blood Red" are: "Figures, lighting, perspective." Translated into theatrical terminology -- "characters, physical production and themes" -- these are some of the strongest assets of this dramatized biography of a female Baroque painter.
Written by Baltimore native Cathy Caplan and given a stunning world premiere by the Splitting Image Theatre Company at the Theatre Project, "Lapis Blue, Blood Red" is a near-perfect blend of form and content.
Artemisia Gentileschi -- the painter the play is about -- probably won't be familiar to most audiences. That's because, until recently, even standard art history texts omitted female artists. Combating that sort of male chauvinism is one of the chief themes of Caplan's play, which also examines generational conflict, artistic jealousy and women's legal rights.
Structurally, the script alternates scenes from two crucial periods in the artist's life: 1612, when, at age 16, she was raped by Agostino Tassi, a painter her father hired to teach her; and 1638, the year of her own daughter's marriage.
This sounds like a fragmented format, but director Robert C. Clingan fluidly choreographs the transitions between scenes. Some of these connections are made simply by having actors from the later time period enter while those from the earlier period exit. In other cases, a prop eases the way between decades. In one scene, for example, a bag of money is given to Artemisia's father; in the next scene, the bag becomes the fee collected from one of Artemisia's patrons 26 years later.
In terms of character development, the shifting time periods allow us to understand the long-term effects of the rape, which include Artemisia's estrangement from her father, Orazio, also a painter. This is reinforced by having Artemisia played by two actresses. Bethany Brown, who portrays Artemisia in middle age, at times seems stridently one-dimensional, but we appreciate the cause of her hardened heart when we see the fate that befalls the initially cheerful Felicia Shakman in the younger role.
As Artemisia's father, Orazio, James Dockery shines in an angry scene in which he seems as enraged about a stolen painting as he is about his daughter's stolen virginity. As Tassi, the villain of the piece, Mark Redfield is duplicitous and patronizing, but he also shows us the charm that ensnared young Artemisia. As Artemisia's grown daughter, Prudenza, Donna Sherman makes it clear she is much more her mother's daughter than she likes to think.
The physical production incorporates slides of Artemisia's paintings, particularly of her most famous subject -- Judith slaying Holofernes. Not only do we see models posing for these paintings, but designer Matt Geneczko's lush lighting remarkably re-creates the Caraveggio-like chiaroscuro at which Artemisia excelled. And, set designer David M. Barber's clever use of transparent canvases -- through which we watch the artists at work -- highlights the link between reality and art, made repeatedly throughout the play.
One final example of the skill with which this production is put together: When young Artemisia testifies in court against her rapist, she is forced to submit to thumbscrews to "confirm" her testimony. On stage, this is represented by having the other cast members tightly and painfully grasp her outstretched hands.
It's a powerful image in a powerful work. The play itself is proof that the recognition of female artists has improved. But the immediacy of scenes like this reminds us that society's treatment of rape victims lags centuries behind.
'Lapis Blue, Blood Red'
Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday
Call: (410) 752-8558