Starving Artists

Live Bait Theater

By Albert Williams

Sharon Evans isn’t one of Chicago’s most prolific playwrights, but she’s one of the best. Her oeuvre–including the long-running 1990 comedy Girls, Girls, Girls, Live on Stage, Totally Rude and the 1994 puppet-theater piece Freud, Dora and the Wolfman–reveals a writer with a thoroughly contemporary sensibility but in the Shavian tradition, addressing emotional and intellectual issues (like how people’s professional commitments inform and even dominate their emotional lives) with crisp comic repartee and a balance of empathy and objectivity toward talented, often self-defeating, yet likable characters. This painter-turned-playwright, a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is especially good when she’s writing about the Chicago art world she knows so well: in the delicious Girls, Girls, Girls, her biggest hit, an SAIC-trained Karen Finley-wannabe ventures into the world of striptease bars to study “the performance persona in a blue-collar culture.”

Evans’s new work, Starving Artists, is less satirical and outrageous than Girls, Girls, Girls; its quizzical, compassionate examination of the art world reveals a more mature observer of human folly and aspiration. Beautifully acted under the direction of Gary Griffin (Evans’s collaborator on Freud, Dora and the Wolfman), this ruminative, somewhat rambling piece studies an intriguing, often inharmonious group of very distinct individuals.

All visual art, no matter how emotionally or politically charged its subject, is ultimately an exercise in spatial relationships: the balance and tension created by different shapes and colors placed together in a finite space. The four artists who give Evans’s play its title–starving not only for food and money but, like everyone, for recognition, respect, and self-understanding–have created their own spatial relationship by sharing a studio south of the Loop, where the forces of gentrification have yet to take hold. Lena, the middle-aged mother figure who holds the lease on the studio, works days as a wine buyer; her art–black spheres that are well crafted but unappealing–reflects her morbid worldview since losing most of her work (and her creative momentum) in a disastrous River North gallery fire (a real-life event a decade ago). Fin and Gil, who work in the same large room as Lena, are bickering best friends. Fin (short for Margaret Finley) is an Irish-American with a temper as red-hot as her hair, who tries to paint between shifts as an Amtrak waitress (“It’s better than working at Starbucks–at least I don’t have to be nice,” she comments in typically tart fashion). Gil is a gifted but emotionally walled-up African-American whose work as a courtroom sketch artist informs his serious portraits of alienated black faces. Holed up in an adjacent room is Clay, an earthy young Georgian who teases about being a straight white male in a world where racial and sexual diversity isn’t only a moral mandate but a grant-getting gimmick. A southern regionalist, Clay seeks to exorcise his background in racially inflammatory mixed-media installations whose elements include Confederate flags and the bodies of swamp snakes–which he also keeps as pets.

At first the setup seems marred only by the usual space-sharing irritations, such as people borrowing each other’s stuff and toilet-seat etiquette (“He gets his dick in his hand and he’s a regular Jackson Pollock,” someone sneers of Clay). But the quartet is faced with a real crisis when a slick young art dealer and curator named Ben Cubinsky arrives, ostensibly to conduct an on-site inspection for a grant-giving foundation. Ben is actually scouting talent: he chooses Gil for an individual grant that’s almost sure to break up the foursome and recruits Clay to help him “acquire” a valuable painting on behalf of a client–a woman who doesn’t want her “minor Picasso” to go to her husband in a divorce settlement. Adding further conflict is the emerging sexual attraction between Clay and Fin–and its disruptive effect on the friendship between Fin and the disapproving Gil, whose cool professional demeanor hides a lifetime of racial resentment. “You can pick and choose your compromises,” Gil tells Fin. “With me, everything is a compromise.”

Juggling her characters’ individual and overlapping concerns, Evans sometimes veers toward art-world soap opera–“As the Palette Turns,” as Fin sarcastically calls her own life. Will Clay and Fin get it on? Will Lena ever emerge from her funk? Will Ben run afoul of the law? Will Gil get his grant? But as the multiple story lines flow together and apart, this smart, funny script addresses a fairly wide range of issues, from the sensual appeal of art (“it’s all about desire”) and the quick rise and fall of art celebrities like Jean-Michel Basquiat to the question of whether to integrate romance and work. (Lena prefers businessmen, which leaves a void in her art; Fin tends to get involved with colleagues–which can further poison a breakup with professional jealousy.) The ever-perplexing matter of race comes to a boil in a long confrontation between Gil and Clay, who begin to appreciate their shared status as misfits in a society ruled by racial and cultural prejudices. And while there are no great pronouncements on the importance of arts funding (in fact, the characters seem to have given up on government grants altogether, focusing entirely on private philanthropy), Evans makes plenty of shrewd observations on artists’ struggles to make a living–working day jobs, struggling to write grant requests that are simultaneously humble and self-congratulatory, enduring on-site assessments from well-heeled critics whose opinions are either ignorant (maddening) or cruelly accurate (even more so).

This species is fascinatingly represented by Ben, the play’s most enigmatic character and its quasi narrator. Impeccably polite but ever so slightly supercilious, this powerful “art microchip” (as Clay calls him) is in fact the play’s most frustrated character. Seemingly inspired by the late Ken Walker–the Chicago art dealer who committed suicide (burning himself alive Buddhist-style) after being accused of stealing artwork from the collection of his deceased lover–Ben is a sexually ambiguous deal maker who schmoozes the rich old ladies who prowl “One Hag Mile,” covering his scruffy deviousness with an elegant English accent acquired during an internship abroad. An analyst of beauty who’s unable to create it, he must sublimate his passion by patronizing (in several senses of the word) artists who barely conceal their contempt for him even as they take his money. It may be Gil and Fin who especially resent the scrounging required of artists to survive, but it’s Ben who embodies the cost of struggling to sell the “private language” of art in the public marketplace.

Evans’s characters come to life in beautifully underplayed performances (helped by Lisa Marie Harrison’s perfectly chosen costumes) that make even occasional stilted set-piece speeches–the play’s one major flaw–credible. Consuelo Allen brings a vulnerable graciousness to the wounded survivor Lena; Erin H. Dailey and Leonard Roberts make Fin and Gil’s edgy tempers grating while keeping the characters sympathetic; Scott Andrew Stevenson is appealing as the sometimes sensitive, sometimes clumsy Clay; and Michael Halberstam brings subtle texture to the chilly, troubled, strangely seductive Ben. Mary Griswold’s set–overlapping white walls that swivel to convey changes of scene–creates a three-dimensional canvas (economically lit by Kevin Hagan) for Evans’s studies of figures in an urban landscape; and Griffin makes canny use of stage imagery to reinforce the thought-provoking dialogue.

Several of the play’s most eloquent scenes are silent, including one depicting the studious ritual of hanging an exhibition–a moment of perfect focus in the midst of the characters’ otherwise muddled existence. Watching such a scene, one realizes how rare it is to see a play about people working at art–or working at all, for that matter–and how valuable Sharon Evans’s gentle, wry, thoughtful vision is in Chicago theater.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Suzanne Plunkett.