Theater review: Museum
Western Michigan University Theatre’s current production of “Museum” takes place in the Richmond Center for the Visual Arts. WMUK’s Gordon Bolar has this review.
Entering the Richmond Center to see Tina Howe’s satirical play “Museum”, you’ll see several curious works of art on display for the show that beg for attention. These include four works on white blank canvas and two small-scale sculptures made of sticks and antlers. The piece de resistance is an installation that consists of four stuffed, soft-sculpture, clothed, human-sized figures, strung on a clothesline behind a basket on the floor containing wooden clothespins.
As performers enter, playing guards, docents, photographers, and patrons commenting about these objects, it becomes clear that this show is not about the art itself. It’s about the human values, foibles, and wild eccentricities that emerge when viewers are confronted by art they don’t understand, or even worse, believe they do understand.
The play is a series of episodes in which the lives of those who pass through an exhibition entitled “Breaking the Silence” are revealed by their reactions to the objects they behold. The student ensemble of eighteen rises to the occasion by presenting three dozen vivid and quirky characters in short, bold, and comedic strokes. Each succeeds in engaging the attention of the audience they surround in this immersive presentation.
Any semblance of a plot for “Museum” is loosely strung together, pun intended, by the basket of clothes pins that sits in front of the clothesline hung with the human-sized figures. Despite stern warnings from the museum guard, no less than half a dozen patrons feel compelled to handle, caress, or steal the clothespins from the basket.
Another running gag is the periodic entry of quixotic patrons asking about the “quilts and windmills” in a folk-art exhibition. The annoyed guard redirects them to the “KIA” across town.
Other memorable interactions include a man and woman clad in black, who enter arm-in-arm, speaking in French. After arguing about the art, these two love birds move to separate corners.
Then a gushing docent vociferously displays her art expertise while waxing eloquently over the “void” represented by the reductive white blank canvas before her.
Later, when sternly reprimanded by the guard for handling the clothespins, one flamboyant member of another couple name drops several museums that he’s presumably not been thrown out of. The couple also engages in an argument about the proper terminology to describe a collage. Big five-dollar words are trotted out such as “pastiche,” “panache,” and “paradigm.”
There’s frequently a hierarchy among art-loving patrons here, and elevated vocabulary is the weapon in this battle for aesthetic one upmanship. Throw in the absence of any agreed upon consistent judgmental criteria and it’s easy to see how impassioned opinions rule the day. Here the larger-than-life characters created by the cast help underscore the human folly on display.
Director Joan Herrington finds creative ways to stage the show and throw focus quickly from one scene to the next through imaginative use of the Richmond Center Atrium Gallery and its multi-level staircase.
Although the volume and animated movement of the performers might seem incongruent with the more subdued demeanor of visitors to a real museum, playwright Tina Howe’s script requires a heightened and dramatic approach.
Herrington’s performers have no trouble quickly taking stage in the cavernous Richmond Center space that serves as the play’s setting. In doing so, they remind us that their characters, not the artwork, are the real show here.
“Museum” provides a refreshing and different kind of experience for the viewer - one that lives “at the intersection of art and theatre,” as the program suggests. The show runs through February 26 at the Richmond Center.