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A&E: A Roman Louvre affair at the IMA

October 1, 2007

It's often easier to talk about artists than it is to talk about art. What was he thinking? What were her influences? What life events made them make those choices? Once we've got some personal details about an artist's life, we can play armchair psychologist and try to figure out what the artist meant when he or she created whatever was created. In short, it's easier for most of us to think about Van Gogh's ear than his brush strokes.

That emphasis on biography can be interesting and instructive, but it also puts us at risk of turning a visit to an art museum into a biggie-sized version of a flip through People magazine, only with more interesting pictures (and without the easy crossword puzzle).

But what is art without the artist?

At the Indianapolis Museum of Art's "Roman Art from the Louvre," 184 works created between the first century B.C. and the fourth century A.D. offer a great opportunity to ponder that question. And many others.

In exploring the multiple galleries of statuary, murals, busts and jewelry, one way to fill in the biographical void is with history and archeology-replacing the whos with hows and whens. Who was worthy of having his or her likeness carved out for the ages? How did the work get from there to here? Why the broken nose? Each work-or, as is often the case here, each fragment of work-carries a wealth of history, with backstories well explained on the accompanying plaques.

Most of us probably don't know much about the period except what we saw in "Gladiator," so a trip through the show can involve as much reading as it does looking at the work. But I suggest not getting bogged down too heavily in the facts if it keeps you from contemplating the art itself.

To fully appreciate the show, take the time to stare into the blank eyes of these long-ago folks, whose images have been filtered through the eyes and hands of remarkable-if anonymous-artists. Consider the choices made in the wave of a toga or the curl of hair. And step away for a time from our world filled with graven images and try to imagine what it was like for any of these statue's subjects to see themselves, threedimensionally, for the first time?

Even those who tend to breeze through the anonymous art in museums will find "Roman Art from the Louvre" an exhibition worth lingering over.

The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra-led by guest conductor James Lowe of the New Bristol Sinfonia-seemed to relish being out of the sightlines for its performance of Gustav Holst's "The Planets" at Clowes Memorial Hall (Sept. 22-23). Turning the stage over to the skilled company of Dance Kaleidoscope, the pit-parked ISO glided from the sweet strings of "Venus, the Bringer of Peace" through the majestic "Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity" to the evocative fade out of "Neptune, the Mystic," reminding listeners that this popular piece is popular for a suite of very good reasons. So good was the sound at the Sunday performance that I found myself, often, closing my eyes to fully soak it in. OK, there was another rea- son, too: the unfortunate costumes inflicted on the DK dancers on stage. What were we to make of the oversized codpieces, confettied bathing caps and bubbled helmets? Was there a reason to saddle a hardworking dancer with what looked like an aluminum foil headpiece? Was this the most respected dance troupe in the city or the cast of a science fiction porno film from 1977?

Whimsy? I'd buy that if it matched the tone of the choreography and overall design of the presentation. As it stands, the costuming choices were baffling and a distraction-and inflicted more harm on the program than a bad note or a dancer's misstep would have.

Better served was the opening piece-Frank Felice's "Earthworks," a gripping work (alas, with recorded music) given a clear choreographed vision-making it as much about birth as it was about Earth-by DK leader David Hochoy.

Speaking of creation, the Stephen Schwartz musical "Children of Eden" also begins with the birth of the universe. As the world is formed, God (here referred to as Father) at the center of things finds himself lonely, creates creatures he calls children, and, like most parents, finds life after that filled with frustration, contradiction and confusion. "Why did you disobey me?" demands Father. "Why did you put questions in me?" replies Eve. Welcome to Parenting 101.

It's a terrific show, one I've been partial to ever since hearing the London version (which has since been drastically revised). Never having been performed on Broadway, the show has become very popular with community theaters that can accommodate its sizable cast, including a large chorus that is onstage during most of the show.

Will I be struck down for saying that the biggest problem with Footlite Musicals' energetic production-the same problem as the last time it was staged there, as a young adult production, years ago-is with God himself?

Schwartz and book writer John Caird actually create a compelling character for the big guy. In fact, he's the one who goes through the biggest changes over the course of the show. And the Act Two song "The Hardest Part of Love," that begins with Noah stepping up to his parental role and transitions to Father realizing that he has to let go, gives him a wonderful opportunity to move an audience (at least, those with their own children) to tears.

One problem here is that John Phillips (who, in his other role as vocal director, pulls some strong sound from his nonprofessional company) doesn't step away once the song is sung and the point made. Contrary to the lesson he learns, Father still weasels his way center stage, killing the impact of an otherwise strong song as he waits, flasher-like, to open his robe for a lame rainbow effect. How much more evocative would this have been if he had stepped away, or watched from the distant upstage, and sent his rainbow sign? And it doesn't help that he seemed kind of creepy all along.

Even with God bringing things down, there are moments when this production soars. As both Eve and Mama Noah, Claire Wilcher-praised here a few months ago for her very-different performance in "Parade"-earns thunderous applause for some of the show's biggest numbers. But her talents go beyond the power of her pipes. She understands the evolution (so to speak) of her character, grasping the pain and excitement of the spark of creation within her. Even a Bible Belting audience might applaud her decision to take that fateful apple bite.
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