Blind Parrot Productions

Before I went to see Dedo I listened to Images, a tape of solo piano music by Robert Ian Winstin, who wrote the book and the music for the show. The album, one of ten Winstin has recorded, is the musical equivalent of purple prose. While some selections are quite beautiful, others are loud, tortured, and overly dramatic, as though the pianist were straining to achieve an emotion he doesn’t really feel.

Listening to Images proved the ideal preparation for Dedo: once again Winstin seems to be straining for a degree of pathos and drama that he can’t really find, this time in the life of Amedeo Modigliani, the prolific painter and sculptor who died in 1920 at the age of 35.

Modigliani’s life provides ample raw material not only for drama but for melodrama–even soap opera. Born into a Jewish family in Livorno, Italy, he was so sickly as a boy that he had to give up school. He took up painting instead, and moved to Paris when he was 22. There he befriended some of the major artists of that period, including Picasso. (Many years later, the last word from the dying Picasso was “Dedo”–Modigliani’s nickname.)

In Paris Modigliani began painting the portraits that would make him famous–elongated figures presented flatly on the canvas, often in unconventional poses. The artist’s great gift was the intimate connection he seemed to establish with his subjects. As one character in the show says, “When you have a portrait by Modigliani, you have a portrait of Modigliani in your clothes.” Yet despite the place he was to earn in the history of art, Modigliani never knew fame or fortune. Strongly attached to alcohol, drugs, and women, roughly in that order, he squandered his ability, often exchanging a portrait for a few drinks. He had a daughter, born in 1918 to a young painter named Jeanne Hebuterne; the day after Modigliani died, in January 1920, Hebuterne, pregnant again, jumped from a window and killed herself.

It’s no wonder that Winstin was attracted to Modigliani. Yet somehow the playwright has managed to drain this biography of all passion, substituting trite, banal scenes that verge on spoofs of the starving-artist stereotype. Modigliani flits from his garret to the bar below–the set is multileveled–where he cadges drinks from friends and flirts with women. In one silly scene he’s in an art class with Picasso, and both of them are being scolded by the teacher. “What do you call this, Pablo?” the teacher asks. “Art,” Picasso replies. “But everything is so square,” the teacher says, then sings to them that “Form is what you need.” How much closer to satire can you get without evoking laughter?

Now, about the music. Winstin’s score has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He has been working for a year with Blind Parrot Productions on developing this show, and somehow the word has gotten out that the score is outstanding. Maybe it is. Maybe a tape of the music, by itself, would reveal Winstin’s originality and dedication to this project. In the context of Dedo, however, the music becomes just one more irritation, primarily because it serves as background to insipid lyrics and a tedious book. And since many of the cast members were singing Winstin’s florid music off-key, I sometimes felt I was watching one of those awful puppet operas from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.

Even beautiful singing, however, could not have made the lyrics moving–or even meaningful. For example: “Look inside his head, a gallery unfolds / A museum in the middle of his mind.” In other words, his brain is well hung. And this: “Fertile laziness is the only real work.” What does that mean? In the lyrics, as in his music on Images, Winstin seems to be faking it–trying to sound profound despite his lack of insight, conviction, or feeling.

Given the chaotic script and pretentious songs, the cast members, under the direction of Susan Padveen, can hardly be blamed for looking tentative and confused onstage. As Dedo, Bill Lynn seems to be groping for a way to look playful, despondent, drunk, and lucid all at the same time. Unfortunately for him, that’s what the script requires him to do. Mary Ringstad, whose poise and intensity hint at the simmering passion within Jeanne Hebuterne, has no scene that allows her to demonstrate what Jeanne feels.

The 18 other cast members, performing against the aural backdrop of Winstin’s dissonant minor-key dirges, often seem to be moving in slow motion–the show slogs along monotonously for 90 intermissionless minutes, virtually free of any surprise or dramatic tension. In a sense, Winstin–and Diana Spinrad and Clare Nolan-Long, who helped with the script–have reversed Modigliani’s technique for creating a memorable portrait: instead of revealing an intense connection with their subject, they have remained aloof, manipulating Modigliani like a puppet in yet another hackneyed tragedy about a tortured artistic genius.