“The Untitled Play About Art School” is a bizarre little show that certainly made me think — but probably inspired “Huh?,” at least twice as much as “Hmmm.” No one could accuse it of being mindless, but it’s more than a bit absent-minded.
Copious Love Productions’ season opener, written by Nelle Tankus and directed by L. Nicol Cabe, is a mixed affair. The story explores personal and societal issues surrounding mental illness in a slickly produced show that’s acted to the hilt. But the core narrative wades through such a morass of unfulfilling B-plots and intensely niche character archetypes that, by the time the whole thing comes to its morality play ending, broader audiences will be exhausted from the mental backflips required just to decide whether they can relate to what they’ve just seen.
At its most basic level, “Untitled” is about art student Amy Antonia (Madison Jade Jones), whose final project and graduation are threatened by her struggle with depression and anxiety.
On one side, she faces a school administration that’s aggressively pushing her toward a strict regimen of treatment — and which may be looking for an excuse to delay her progress to squeeze out more tuition money.
On the other, her academic adviser, Wilhelmina Rosemary (Merri Ann Osborne), supports Amy’s quirks as a necessary part of her creative process but urges her to think about remaining within the safety of the education-industrial complex as a teacher.
These scenes of real-world conflict are counterbalanced by scenes in a version of ancient Thebes that exists entirely in Amy’s head. When she works on her senior thesis, she parties and butts heads with her muse, Echo (Grace Carmack). Amy’s depression and anxiety are represented by a carnivorous monster (styled after “Little Shop of Horrors’” Audrey II, natch), as well as a pestilence that spreads pustulant sores across the personified inhabitants of hermind. As things get harder for Amy in the real world, the pestilence spreads further and the monster grows larger.
These metaphors play into the best and most relatable part of “Untitled’s” story. Amy’s about to move on from the world of institutional learning and into the entirely unfamiliar “real world” for which college has allegedly meant to prepare her.
College, like “Untitled’s stage, is a long and narrow pier. Walk in one direction, in one way, and you’ll surely reach the end. But at the end of every pier is an ocean. Life is an ocean, a directionless, shapeless mass full of stray winds, strange creatures, and deep waters. Wilhelmina warns Amy that, once she leaves shore, there’s no guarantee she’ll ever find safe harbor again — by pursuing art, she’s resigning herself to a life of unending creative struggle.
“The idea that doing what you love will allow you to find happiness and relieve pain is s--t,” she declares.
Copious Love’s production team drives this anxiety home with slickly done visual and aural cues. The aforementioned stage is a single catwalk that illustrates the artificial constraints of institutional learning and binary thinking. The makeup work on the diseased boils spreading to Amy’s imagined Greeks is visually grotesque in the best way.
The show’s sound production deserves an A-plus. It’s full of nice little details. During every real world scene, an almost undetectable ambient infrasound plays in the background producing an irrational anxiety surrounding otherwise mundane conversations.
But these details — makeup, sound design, stage design, acting — are a sensory garnish on a main course that just isn’t all that tasty.
Despite the amount of work the actors put in, the characters are wafer thin. Art school administrator Rhett Whetmore (Jeremy Behrens), openly scheming against his students, is a waxed mustache and top hat away from being Snidely Whiplash. Another character, an unlikable art school student justifying their affair with Whetmore to a slightly less unlikable art school student, actually says this line:
“You’re a talented artist … [but] I’m an untalented artist and I have a low IQ, so I have to meet people.”
If someone had come out and said, “I’m the villain of this show and, furthermore, a doodiehead who’s not at all a stand-in for someone who wronged the playwright,” as they slyly winked at the audience, it would not have surprised me at all.
Wilhelmina has the most depth of anyone in the production, and her character can be summed up as “fun aunt.” She’s an enabler of self-destructive behavior who presents herself as a wise mentor, but not-so-secretly wishes she were young and hungry again.
Devil’s advocate: Given the show’s use of mental illness as a plot device, and how the plot ultimately plays out, it could be that Amy is an unreliable narrator, and we see these people as malevolent caricatures because that’s how she sees them. It’s plausible. But it feels generous.
Which brings us to my final beef with this show: the ending. For the first 85 minutes of the show’s 90-minute runtime, the audience is drawn into a story in which a quirky student’s creative process increasingly runs afoul of the rules, regulations and unbending viewpoints of institutional life. And, without going into details, the conflict just… goes away. It felt cheap, and it made the production’s positive message about neurodiversity seem more than a bit unearned.
'The Untitled Play About Art School' plays in the 12th Avenue Arts building's Studio through Dec. 21.