Action Pain-ing: The ghost of painter Jackson Pollock is a conflicted priest's confidant in Theatre NOVA's "SPLATTERED!"
Conventional wisdom teaches us that “art heals,” but not usually via advice from a long-dead painter who suddenly reappears near one of his most famous works.
Nonetheless, this exact situation stands at the heart of Theatre NOVA's world-premiere production of SPLATTERED! by Hal Davis and Carla Milarch, directed by Briana O’Neal.
Set inside New York’s Museum of Modern Art, priest-in-training Justin (Artun Kircali) has snuck away from a wedding reception, with a champagne bottle in hand, to try and pull himself together. He’s just presided over the wedding of his cousin and best friend, Astrid (Marie Muhammad), but we initially don’t know why he’s drinking, cursing, and frantically praying in this gallery while confronting Jackson Pollock’s splatter painting “One: Number 31, 1950.”
But he’s not alone for long: Astrid soon finds him and, eventually, Justin’s old flame Sylvie (Allison Megroet) does, too. Yet it’s the surprise appearance of Pollock’s ghost (Andrew Huff) that provides Justin with an opportunity to unpack the unwieldy emotional baggage he’s carrying, which makes him reconsider his life choices and future.
SPLATTERED! runs a little over an hour, and other than two very brief Sylvie flashbacks, it unfolds in real time and the audience must work hard to piece together what’s happened between these characters in the past. During one early moment of confusion, I had initially guessed that Justin had been hopelessly pining for Astrid. Despite those initial thoughts, this short play doesn’t feel as fleeting as one might expect.
That’s partly a function of the heavy lifting from both the playwrights and the actors, who are inherent in filling in so many blanks. And while the play aims to connect Pollock’s messy life and Justin’s past and present choices, the exploration of both skews the play’s focus, so that you’re more seduced by the larger-than-life Pollock than by the far quieter, more scant-on-details story that Justin has to share.
Similarly, Huff, as Pollock, seems to be having the most fun, playing the drama’s meatiest role. All the painter’s mistakes, as big as they are, are behind him, so he blazes through conversations with a fierceness Justin struggles to match. Kircali, meanwhile, has the most challenging part, because he must find ways to hint at the iceberg of emotion and past events that inform Justin’s arrival point in this frenzied present. Muhammad charms the audience in her scenes, though her character initially muddies the waters (and may not even be necessary), and Megroet, while affecting, must play a crucially important character who seems curiously underdeveloped.
Scenic designers Monica Spencer and Forrest Hejkal put the actors inside Pollock’s famous “drip painting,” which extends across the entire floor, the walls, and the pole, and place only a bench on Theatre Nova’s otherwise bare stage. This makes Pollock’s art the show’s focal point, and also accurately mimics the spareness of a museum gallery; however, it doesn’t leave O’Neal or her actors many options in terms of movement and blocking.
Similarly, lighting designer Jeff Alder uses his powers to ratchet up the ghost story feel of the play, as does Milarch as sound designer. And finally, costume designer Genevieve Compton nails the different characters’ looks, with the possible exception of Pollock’s too uniformly splattered denim outfit, which otherwise, in terms of cut and era-specific styling, feels exactly right.
Theatre Nova has long been a place for new plays to be nurtured and brought to life. While SPLATTERED!'s title is tonally off-kilter given the gravity of the play’s content, the company offers up what feels like an in-progress work: a painting with hints of potential that may just need more polish and time to shine its brightest.
Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.
SPLATTERED! runs April 27-30, May 4-7, and May 11-14 at Theatre NOVA, 410 W. Huron St. in Ann Arbor. For tickets and information, visit theatrenova.org.