Written by Andrea Kuchlewska; Performed by Harmony Stempel; Directed by Jessi D. Hill
Off Broadway, Solo Show
Runs through 4.11.14
Baruch Performing Arts Center, 55 Lexington Avenue
by Zahra Sadjadi on 3.31.14
Harmony Stempel in Human Fruit Bowl.
BOTTOM LINE: A uniquely captivating solo performance about the nature of art, art history, and storytelling.
Maybe no one ever wonders what goes through the mind of a nude model. When you’re looking at a painting of a nude, maybe you’re only ever wondering what the model is doing and why the artist took the trouble. And maybe, just maybe, you’re moved enough by what you’re looking at to remember it. If anything, Human Fruit Bowl is a theatrical elaboration of this thought process. Part life drawing class, part art history class, part one-woman show, Human Fruit Bowl is fictional but very much rooted in the kinds of stories we tell, how we tell them, why we tell them, and what we reveal about ourselves given what we choose to believe and what we leave out.
As you enter the theater, you are offered pencil, paper, and drawing board. Seats are not assigned. Harmony Stempel, the sole actor in the piece, is already on stage wrapped in a red hooded robe, sitting sideways in a chair, scribbling in a journal, sipping water and waiting for the audience to arrive. As a timer goes off, Stempel faces forward in her chair, strikes a seated pose, and begins to talk. Behind her, slides of paintings are projected upon a screen intermittently, not unlike your average art history class. Stempel talks. The timer goes off. She disrobes. She sits in a bathtub, strikes another pose, and talks. She holds each pose until the timer sounds.
Stempel is quite still (hence the title Human Fruit Bowl), but she is hardly a still life. Rather, her mind is in constant motion and leads to the conversational equivalent of quick cut edits. By her own admission, a nude model has a lot of time to think, and Stempel gives you full access to the fluctuations of her mind. Interweaving random minutiae like “clean out refrigerator” or “buy coffeemaker” with lists of famous model-painter pairings, candid confessions of insecurity, the logistics of modeling, the “true” story of a particular painter and his lesser-known muses, as well as her character’s journey from failed waitress to struggling nude model, Stempel paints her narrative, carefully connecting disparate components until the cacophony becomes a brilliant, vibrantly layered account of how we tell stories.
Human Fruit Bowl can at times feel awkward. You are, after all, watching a woman disrobe and stand naked and motionless alone onstage. There are moments, just as in a life drawing class, where your model takes her five-minute break and sits in her chair, eating an apple and not talking. At such moments, you’re not quite sure where you are in the play, what you should do during the break, how long it will last, or what it all means. Stempel concedes, “it’s hard when you’re left to piece a story together by yourself,” and, to an extent, that is what you’re doing as a member of the audience. You have your pencil, you have your paper, and it is up to you to capture your own experience. Stempel is a great subject, though, and, like any talented model, partner, and collaborator, she gives you much to work with.
(Human Fruit Bowl plays at The Rose Nagelberg Theater at Baruch Performing Arts Center, 55 Lexington Avenue, through April 11, 2014. Performances are Thursdays and Fridays at 8 PM, Saturdays at 3 PM and 8 PM, and Sundays at 3 PM with an added matinee on Thursday April 3 at 1 PM. Tickets are $25 ($12 for students and seniors) and are available at www.baruch.cuny.edu/bpac, by calling 646.312.5073, or in person at the box office.)