by: JK Clarke
Those of us who have never indulged in a live drawing class with nude models in the room generally don’t know what to do, or how exactly to behave when first we encounter such a setting. Where to look, what expression to hold, and what exactly to do with our hands—particularly if we’re not actually there to draw, or have no skill in it. But what rarely, if ever, crosses our minds, is that the model herself (or himself) may be facing that same trepidation and uncertainty. How should she pose? Can she continue to do so for 20 minutes in the same uncomfortable position? Who are all these people and what are they thinking? Well, that’s the exact scenario we are presented with in Human Fruit Bowl, playing through April 11 at the Baruch Performing Arts Center.
Harmony Stempel plays a young woman who needs work, having had enough of waitressing yet needing to pay the rent. At a roommate’s urging, she signs up to model at the local art school. The pay is sufficient and the work, at first glance, seems not to be terribly demanding: stand in a room while being sketched . . . nude.
The Woman (Stempel) poses in front of us, the “sketching class” (we’re given lap easels, paper and pencils with which to sketch her), and tells her story of being an art class model. But she intertwines it with her thoughts about some of the great artists’ (i.e. Picasso, Cezanne, Renoir) models. In particular she dwells on the French post-Impressionist Pierre Bonnard and his model/mistress Renée Monchaty who may or may not have committed suicide in a bathtub, a place where she frequently posed for him. While the Woman is not an art enthusiast by any stretch of the imagination, she is intrigued by the role of the model. And as for the nudity: “Could I handle being naked in a room full of people? Sure. No. I don’t know,” she muses. But in sharing her inner thoughts on art and her job while at times covered and at times completely bare, bit by bit she exposes the banality of nudity. And her dialog—both interior and exterior, linear and non-linear—exposes unusual fissures in the fourth wall, causing us to reflect more on her story and her thought process rather than her . . . predicament. Which is exactly what she has done. She has focussed on other things and brought us along with her.
Human Fruit Bowl adeptly takes the normally straightforward one-person show concept and twists it into both a group experience and a mystery of sorts. Writer Andrea Kuchlewska, Director Jessi D. Hill and Stempel have teamed up to provide what turns out to be a somewhat surreal experience cloaked in what seems at first to be an ordinary narrative. Those who have read the program and are listening carefully will realize that elements of real life and the—supposedly—fictional story blend at some point and we are left to wonder: is this a personal narrative? And, if so, is it about the author or the actor? An entertaining quandary, to be sure.
Stempel’s fine—and brave—acting, coupled with Kucklewska’s very crafty writing make Human Fruit Bowl an exciting and intriguing play that breathes new life into the genre and leaves a thoughtful, reflective and appreciative audience.
Human Fruit Bowl. Through April 11 at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, 55 Lexington Avenue (entrance on East 25th Street).www.HumanFruitBowl.com