The Pitman Painters
By Lee Hall
Directed by Bobby Bell
Starring Mark Lainer, Mark Edward Smith, Tommy Keesling
Mad Cow Theatre Orlando FL
“Great art only comes from genius. Anyone can create art. The only thing that really matters about art is how it makes you feel.” Tonight we explore these three possibly inconstant ideas amongst the coal pits of depression era Northumberland. It’s a Monty Python grade stew of confusion and pretense punctuated by the occasionally flag waving lecture about the transcendence of art. Back in those good old days, a boy of 10 or 11 rolled out of bed one morning and then spent the rest of his life digging coal by hand for 10 hours a day, and got paid for over time if he was lucky. Culture of any sort was off in distant Newcastle, and cosmopolitan London might as well be on another planet. But these weren’t brutish men, they discussed politics and heard about science and even hired lecturer and low grade artist Robert Lyon (Keesling) to expound “The Meaning of Art”. Officious George (Smith) tracks minor infractions and enforces the most obscure rules this side of St Andrew’s golf course while his buddy Harry (John Bateman) interprets everything in terms of redistribution of wealth. After a nearly unintelligible clash over what “meaning” means, Lyon suggests these men of the earth try paining on their own. It’s shy Oliver (Lainer) who “gets” it, soon he’s attracted the attention of the dilettante collector Helen Sutherland (Amanda Schlachter) who offers a stipend. Oliver wavers, and then refuses as he feels safer among his mates underground. A wise choice, after the Ashington Group makes a splash, their style of naive Social Realism faded from popularity, and they return to what they know best – risking life and limb underground for starvation wages and no insurance.
This is a brilliant comedy working on multiple levels. The rollicking cast each hold separate voice and separate attitude toward both life and art. While the accents are thick as porridge, you can make out the sputtering anger of not “getting” what looks like it should be simple to “get.” Keesling’s art instructor suitably rumpled, and even though these men become his friends he’s not above exploiting them. The one “real” artist in the cast, Ben Nicholson (Trevin Cooper) cattily explains that hanging out with Ms. Sutherland is post sale service necessary to collect the next commission, “even if the customer has her head up her ass”. On a deeper level, this show compliments the recent “Red” across town: here at the bottom of the artistic heap we see the same veniality and sheer self promotion that hangs paintings on gallery walls and feeds the vanity of the well-to-do. What we learn in both “The Pitman Painters” and “Red” is that great art achieves greatness not by the skill of the painter, but by the fashion sense of collectors and galleries and how the painter manipulates those forces. Woe to those who buy paintings that do not hold the collectors eye!
For more information on Mad Cow, please visit http://www.madcowtheatre.com