Nasty Shadows’ nasty production

9 11 2012

by Adam Washburn

I attended Nasty Shadows’ production of Nick Dear’s The Art of Success in Saint John High School’s mini theatre on Saturday night. Despite the fact the company was performing outside of their hometown of Fredericton they still managed to pull in an intimate and responsive crowd.

Never have I been to a theatre performance quite like this. Dear’s play is the most shocking piece of theatre I have seen. It consists of moments with excessive bawdy language, extremely mature themes and at one point full on nudity. I am not recommending this type of theatre for a family night out, but if you are looking for a show that will keep you on your toes than this is a play to see.

Nick Dear wrote The Art of Success in 1987. It is based on the life of William Hogarth (Matthew Spinney) and takes place around the 1730’s. Hogarth is a man striving to make it as a successful artist but he has been forced to make portraits to earn his money. Hogarth struggles to sell his art because copyright laws do not exist, leaving no law against those who copy his original prints. His friend Henry Fielding (Ian Goff) is a successful playwright who has a successful career. He writes controversial plays that speak against the political agenda. We see conflict between him and the Prime Minister Robert Walpole (Andrew Jones). Walpole seems to have the potential to help or destroy either one of these men’s careers. We are left wondering throughout this play whether he will end up doing so.

Most of the play takes place in one night. Hogarth has the idea of doing a portrait of a prisoner by the name of Sarah Sprackling (Elizabeth Goodyear). He expects to make some money off the portrait because Sprackling is an infamous murderer who is to be put to death the following day. Her unhappiness about the portrait gives her the incentive to escape the prison to take back what she believes does not rightly justify her image. While the audience follows Sprackling on her journey to redemption we also follow Hogarth on his. He spends the night struggling with the conflict between his desire for a virtuous self-image and his deep dark secrets.

There are ten characters in this play that all call for intensive study. Each has extremely wordy speeches and most are presented half drunk the entire show. Some characters are put into extremely uncomfortable positions such as kissing the opposite sex, presenting themselves partially naked on stage, farting in another character’s face, and even presenting full frontal nudity to the audience. Despite fumbling a line or two, these are definitely the most dedicated cast members I have seen. I am impressed with the boundaries they break as they explore the play’s mature themes.

Although there are many funny moments in this play, the underling themes are dark and disturbing. Spinney portrays Hogarth’s sexual fantasies as if they were a curse. The effort he puts into hiding his true feelings causes him to become more open about them with a common prostitute than his own wife.

This play takes place around a time when words such as feminism, homosexuality and nymphomaniac did not exist. It is interesting to watch the characters explore these themes, but at the same time portray the fact that they do not fully understand them.

The Art of Success ran Oct 26-28, 2012 at Theatre New Brunswick’s studio theatre in Fredericton, and Nov 2-3, 2012 at Saint John High School’s mini theatre, produced by Fredericton’s Nasty Shadows Theatre Co.

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