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Ape & Astronaut Theater Company: AATC's First Show, The Modern Olympia, Never Quite Achieves Liftoff

& Preview: Ape & Astronaut Theater Company: Commerce and Art Collide in The Modern Olympia

August 20, 2005 - Durham, NC:

Ape & Astronaut Theater Company’s inaugural production, The Modern Olympia, a new R-rated comedy by Craig Payst, huffs and puffs but never quite achieves liftoff. The fault lies in an excessively talky script (during the first half of the play), a whiplash-inducing mid-show plot twist midway that’s never adequately explained or developed, some pedestrian performances, and director Fred Corlett’s failure to shape the material or the performances to show off the script at its best. As a result, the Saturday night performance of The Modern Olympia was only intermittently entertaining. 

The show’s gimmick is that it is set in 1861 and recreates onstage a controversial reclining nude (“Olympia”) by 19th century French painter Édouard Manet (1832-83). (Manet’s more realistic approach to the classic nude, as exemplified by “Olympia” staring unashamed directly at the viewer, was the scandal of The Salon exhibition in Paris in 1865, with only a group of young artists eventually known as the Impressionist rushing to Manet’s defense.)

In The Modern Olympia, local playwright Craig Payst attributes the famous pose in “Olympia” to the artistic genius of Manet’s friend, the entirely unknown painter Théophile LeClerc (Robby Merritt), who employs the well-known but temperamental model Victorine (Kelly Lowery) to sit nude for hours in his drafty garret.

Neither Merritt nor Lowery display the necessary vivacity in their scenes together. Lowery is sour, not acerbic in her remarks; and Merritt is so nonchalant in his performance that he practically fades into the scenery. Then in walks the dilettante Eugene Andre (Joel T. Horton), a fickle former lover whom Victorine particularly despises. Horton is beautifully dress by costume designer David Serxner, but he is so ostentatiously theatrical in manner that he quickly becomes more annoying than amusing.

The arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Jones (played as complete clods by Matt Schedler and Mary Misertino), whom M. Andre met the previous evening while painting Paris red, is supposed to rocket the proceedings to new heights of hilarity. But the show fizzles, because, Brad and Kelly Jones are merely stereotypical Ugly Americans, a mercenary couple materialistic to the core. Their vulgar and crassly commercial attitude toward all things artistic provokes some sharp words between the women, which leads the men to fight an ill-advised duel, using old-fashioned cap-and-ball pistols.

What happens next is not the comic payoff that you might expect. The play does end with a bang, but it is not a big enough bang to justify sitting still for 60+ minutes, without intermission, on a flowery seat cushion on a chair at Common Ground Theatre.

Ape & Astronaut Theater Company presents The Modern Olympia Thursday-Saturday, Aug. 25-27, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Aug. 28, at 3 p.m. at Common Ground Theatre, 4815B Hillsborough Rd., Durham, North Carolina. $15. 919/332-9109. Ape & Astronaut Theater Company: [inactive 3/08]. Common Ground Theatre: “Olympia” by Édouard Manet:


PREVIEW: Ape & Astronaut Theater Company: Commerce and Art Collide in The Modern Olympia

by Robert W. McDowell

For its first full-scale production, Ape & Astronaut Theater Company will present The Modern Olympia, a brand-new comedy written by local playwright and Ape & Astronaut managing director Craig Payst and staged by veteran Triangle actor/director Fred Corlett, Aug. 18-28 at Common Ground Theatre in Durham, NC. Rated R (for nudity), the play will be performed without intermission.

“The script is very clever and witty,” claims director Fred Corlett. “It reminds me a lot of [Irish playwright George Bernard] Shaw. Shaw has always been one of my favorite playwrights.” He adds, “[Craig Payst’s] writing just crackles. It’s so witty and humorous, and yet insightful.”

Corlett says, “The play begins in 1862 in Paris in the garret of … Théophile LeClerc (Robby Merritt), and his model, Victorine (Kelly Lowery), who is a real historical figure…. She is posing for a picture that becomes a very famous painting historically, but [that ‘Olympia’] was painted by Édouard Manet [1832-83].

“While Victorine is posing,” Corlett says, “[she and Théo] are discussing the merits of the paintings that [will be] exhibited at the state exhibit called ‘The Salon,’ an annual juried competition….”

He explains, “They are interrupted by the arrival of Théo’s friend Eugene Andre (Joel T. Horton). It becomes increasing obvious that M. Andre and Victorine have a past together that didn’t end happily. Andre is much richer than the artist or the model; he is a member of the bourgeoisie and has a far more cavalier attitude about the value of art. He has invited an American couple, Brad (Matt Schedler) and Kelly (Mary Misertino), whom he met the previous evening, to come over to LeClerc’s garret, because he thinks that they might be interested in buying some of his paintings.”

The Americans, says Corlett, “are expert in merchandising, and they bring [a] commercial attitude toward art into the discussion. This attitude precipitates insults between the model and the American woman, which means that the artist and the woman’s husband have to fight a duel, which they proceed to do in the garret, without ever leaving the room. Completely unintended consequences result, and the painter is left with the question, ‘Who is Ulysses Grant?’”

Dramatist Craig Payst says, “The Modern Olympia takes as its subject an incident in the life of Théophile LeClerc [1828-70], a forgotten contemporary of Édouard Manet. In 1862 both men arrived, apparently completely independently, at an idea for a painting: a nude, reclined in a contemporary setting, with a black cat on her bed, and a black servant bringing her flowers. Manet’s version of this painting would be the groundbreaking ‘Olympia.’”

Payst notes, “Some scholars even suggest that the men shared a model. [French painter, printmaker, and sculptor Edgar] Degas’ diaries around time record that LeClerc was working with a ‘strident, willful’ model named Victorine.

“Whether this is the same Victorine Meurent who posed so famously for Manet’s ‘Olympia’ is unknown. Degas does not give us her last name. What is known is that shortly thereafter Manet and LeClerc had a tremendous falling out either over their shared idea shared model and did not speak again for seven years. It must be appreciated, however, that two geniuses could independently [arrive] at the same idea for a painting which would change the course of Western art forever. To have been living in Paris at that time must have been a truly exceptional experience.”

Payst says, “The Modern Olympia considers what might have been happening at the time LeClerc conceived of his lost painting, what kind of woman could inspire such a work, and what exactly there is for an American to do in Paris.”

In addition to playwright and producer Craig Payst and director Fred Corlett, the show’s production team includes fight director Jeff A.R. Jones, costume designer David W. Serxner, props mistress Karen Byers, jack-of-all-trades Kurt Benrud, and stage manager Julya M. Mirro.

Craig Payst says, “Our set can be described as minimal, our lighting minimal, and our costumes very minimal. Patrons should be aware that there is nudity in the show.”

Fred Corlett insists, “The nudity is not gratuitous. In the play, we’re going from the Romantic to the Impressionist period[,] painting people as they actually looked and not as an idealization of how they looked.”

He adds, “We’re [producing The Modern Olympia] on a shoestring or maybe a half a shoestring and we’re performing [the play] in a ‘black box theater,’ which is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a room painted black, and the audience’s imagination is called upon to create a great deal of the set in the space…. Luckily, [props mistress Karen Byers] is a wonderful painter and has provided the paintings that pass on stage as LeClerc’s body of work.”

Ape & Astronaut Theater Company presents The Modern Olympia Thursday-Saturday, Aug. 18-20 and 25-27, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Aug. 21 and 28, at 3 p.m. at Common Ground Theatre, 4815B Hillsborough Rd., Durham, North Carolina. $15. 919/332-9109. Ape & Astronaut Theater Company: [inactive 3/08]. Common Ground Theatre: “Olympia” by Édouard Manet: