by Krista Thorp '15
Oldcastle Theater’s production of Grandma Moses: An American Primitive, directed by Eric Peterson, has much in common with the works of Grandma Moses themselves: it is extremely charming.
Oldcastle, a theater in downtown Bennington, finished its season with the play by Stephen Pouloit. It is extremely appropriate to have a performance take place in Bennington, as the eponymous character, Anna Mary Moses, grew up in Eagle Bridge, NY, about thirty minutes from town. She began painting in her old age and became famous as a “farm wife” who had the ability to create art that transported her 1960’s viewers back to a simpler time.
The play was performed in a black box theater, which was only recently built in a series of renovations that the theater has been undergoing for the past year. The set was reminiscent of something we might create in D207; like the paintings it was built to discuss, it is very simple. It was clear that a lot of thought was put into the set dressing—particularly lovely was the painting table, which was propped up by two mugs and decorated with real African violets. The backdrop was painted with reproductions of Moses’ colorful works. The richness of the colors in the paintings was not reflected in the set, which created an interesting juxtaposition, and while having paintings to reference as the characters discussed Moses’ style, the specific pieces that were talked about in the text were not recreated on the backdrop, which would have been a helpful and interesting addition.
Pouloit seems to have been trying a more experimental narrative form in this play, which, at times, was successful. One actor played all the male characters, putting on different hats and accents to differentiate between Moses’ neighbors, relatives, and patrons. This created an interesting energy throughout the performance, but perhaps led to some implications about feminism that Pouloit did not intend. The only other actor in the play is the woman playing Grandma Moses, meaning that there is only one female character and she only interacts with men, who are all, at least visually, equated with each other. The biography of Grandma Moses is an interesting vehicle to discuss women in painting, since her fame was based primarily on the novelty of an uneducated women making good art; this issue is touched upon but the commentary that is implied by the double casting seems separate and somewhat confusing.
Despite the narrative issues in the script, the acting done by the leading lady, Christine Decker, was very successful. She effectively invoked the thrift and wit of the character that Pouloit extracted from primary sources and interviews. The intermission represented a fifty-five year time jump, and with the help of some costume and makeup, the actress convincingly played both a forty-five year old and 100-year old woman. The realism of this portrayal, however, left one feeling a bit like they found themselves unable to escape from a distant aunt at the Thanksgiving table—all the comfort and charm of old family stories, but also the slight dread that there are more than eighty years of stories to be told.
Overall, the play was enjoyable. The fast-talking characters played by Peter Langstaff were a nice contrast to the stable and steadfast Grandma Moses, and the play left one feeling nostalgic and pleasant. Though the script itself left something to be desired, the production was well executed and extremely appropriate for a theater with the character of Oldcastle.