Capital Fringe Festival: Robert Barnett’s ‘A Day at the Museum’
By Maura Judkis
Monday, July 18, 2011
If playwright Robert Barnett is to be believed, art museums are a better place for meeting mates than Match.com. With three nude “paintings” to serve as aphrodisiac, many of the characters who flit through a gallery in “A Day at the Museum” are checking out one another, not the art. But more than lust, Barnett’s silent comedy is about reversing the gaze, a hyper-analyzed art-historical concept. What if the portrait that seems to be staring directly at you actually were?
Director Perry T. Schwartz has hung three frames in front of the audience at the Warehouse, and behind a sheer backdrop, a female model poses for each of the traditional nude paintings within: One is demure, another is motherly and the last, with legs apart, is overtly sexual. Throughout the day, visitors pass through and react to the art with embarrassment, empathy, curiosity or disdain. There is no dialogue in the play, so all of their emotions and interactions are mimed, with an orchestral soundtrack by composer and producer Brian Wilbur Grundstrom.
The concept is clever (though many visual artists, such as Thomas Struth, have beaten Barnett to it) but begins to wear thin after several rounds of museum visitors have passed through. After all, how many times can a woman pull her male companion away by the ear for lingering a bit too long before the sexy portrait? It’s a short show, and that’s for the best. Still, a few vignettes leave a lasting impression, either for their familiarity or their absurdity. We’ve all seen the tortured artist who visits a gallery, his face contorting with concentration as he stares at the work. Yet we haven’t seen the young parents carrying their twins in Baby Bjorns, who are so enthralled by the painting of motherhood that they place the headphones of the museum’s audio guide on their infants’ ears so they can begin their art education early.
The show’s original soundtrack is pleasant but often seems as cartoonish as some of the characters, such as the randy, dirndl-wearing German tourist or the “master” who parades his submissive through the gallery in a dog collar just for laughs. Grundstrom relies upon musical tropes to deliver information about the personalities of the museum patrons: A braggy docent is always greeted with brass, an introspective artist with a sketchbook gets piano, and a woman who identifies strongly with the painting gets a feminine flute.
Each character’s reaction to the work is colored in broad strokes, a limitation of the show’s miming. One wonders how the museum-goers of Barnett’s show would react to something contemporary, abstract or truly edgy, but a show of blank stares with a monotone score probably wouldn’t be any fun.