The Woman Who Amuses Herself

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Editorial Review

'Woman': A Little Hand For the Big Lady

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, May 25, 2009

Ah, the intrigue of art theft! Criminal masterminds swiping creative masterpieces -- nifty characters and juicy story, right?

Not so fast. Victor Lodato's "The Woman Who Amuses Herself" takes a studied approach to the real-life heist of the Mona Lisa nearly 100 years ago, focusing on the surprisingly nebbishy Italian bandit who lifted Leonardo da Vinci's great painting from the Louvre not for money, but for an odd kind of love.

It's a slender hook, but then again, this drama might not be in its ideal form at the Theater Alliance. Lodato's play can be performed by multiple actors or by just one, and Kasi Campbell's production has opted for the solo route. That throws the spotlight on Vincenzo Perugia, the unlikely Italian bandit, and Nigel Reed, the capable actor who plays that surprisingly timid main character, plus nine more roles.

The problem is that the characters are all pretty small, particularly in contrast to the Mona Lisa, whose aura increases as Perugia and the other figures testify to her unusual power. That she, not Perugia, is the essential subject of the show is recognized by Reed, whose gesture to the Mona Lisa reproduction at the back of the H Street Playhouse stage during his curtain call frankly acknowledges a co-star.

The painting is certainly more absorbing than the portrait of Perugia penned by Lodato -- though to be fair, a recent review in these pages of two new books about the theft suggests that a big-time schemer, the Marques de Valfierno, was more seductive to the authors than was Perugia. Valfierno's involvement is unconfirmed, but his counterfeiting plot brings a whiff of caper that Perugia (who confessed and was convicted of the crime) decidedly lacks.

Why did Perugia do it? Lodato's script waxes on about patriotism (why should the French have this Italian masterpiece?) and a slightly bizarre sense of art appreciation. As a professional house painter, Perugia felt he knew enough to get the details of Da Vinci's mastery -- and as someone nutty enough to steal it, he also rhapsodizes about various kinds of mystical bonds prompted by that sly smile.

But the play talks vaguely around the incident, probing Perugia's conscience for a bit (with Reed aptly managing an Italian accent and the offbeat cadences of a sentimental loner) and then flitting to see what various satellite characters have to say. Thus, Reed quick-morphs into: a nasal-voiced New Jersey schoolteacher who loves the artwork and clamps down on her unruly class; a 15th-century monk explaining how paintings were used to distract and console condemned men on the gallows; the mischievous Marcel Duchamp famously defacing a postcard of the Mona Lisa; and more.

Meanwhile, bits of the Mona Lisa dance on a jumble of panels that fragment her in a cubist style, isolating the lips, the eyes or the hands as various characters describe their reactions to the work. A witty touch involves frivolous Internet images of Mona Lisa rip-offs, testifying to her continuing iconic status.

But as attention continually gets pulled to the artwork, that dynamic suggests that the production is a little inside out. Rather than the painting as a kind of PowerPoint add-on, it seems she ought to be front and center, with Lodato's quirky characters in awed orbit.

The Woman Who Amuses Herself, by Victor Lodato. Directed by Kasi Campbell. Set and lighting, Klyph Stanford; sound designed and composed by Matt Otto; costumes, Heather Lockard; projections, Mark Anduss. About two hours.