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Open: 03/27/14- Close: 04/11/14 Human Fruit Bowl
Reviewed for TheaterOnline.com By: Heather Violanti
Brittany Brett ©2019  The Woman (Harmony Stempel) eats an apple, meditating on the nature of art modeling

terraNova Collective’s annual soloNova Festival has helped reinvigorate the nature of solo performance in New York, presenting solo shows that stretch the boundaries of the form while questioning the good, bad, and in-between of human existence.  Innovative, soul-searching works as Polanksi Polanksi by Saviana Stanescu and The Bike Trip by Martin Dockery have found their feet at soloNova while redefining the nature and scope of the solo show.  Many soloNova “alums” transfer to great success Off-Broadway and on the global fringe circuit.

Human Fruit Bowl, now in performances at Baruch Performing Arts Center, is the latest soloNova alum to re-invent the solo form and graduate to Off-Broadway.  Written by Andrea Kuchlewska, directed by Jessi D. Hill, and starring Harmony Stempel, this sharp, funny and poignant play explores what goes on inside the head of an art model.  Daringly structured across as a series of timed, unclothed poses that comprise an art modelling session, the work charts the emotional journey of a young Woman as she comes to terms with life in New York.  As the Woman poses for 20 minutes, then takes a break, then poses, we discover snippets of her life and her impromptu research into the history of artists and their models.

After losing her job as a waitress thanks to a rude customer (“we call it serving” muses a bitter Woman), she tries nude art modelling.  “Everyone needs a job…sometimes you just need a job” she muses, even if she can’t quite ever get over that “It is totally weird to be naked in the middle of a room. While everyone else is clothed. Except for the two other naked people nearby.”

The Woman strikes up an acquaintance with one of the artists in the class, a painter who keeps asking her to go with him to the Metropolitan Museum.  When seeing her pose in a bathtub, he tells her about the bathing paintings of Pierre Bonnard.  He claims Bonnard’s favorite model, Renee Moncharty, killed herself in the bath, thus leading to Bonnard’s obsession with painting bathers.  The Woman begins to question this story, trying to find more details about Moncharty’s life, and, in the process, learning more about the often troubled relationship between artists and their models throughout history.  She also discovers a newfound love of art—and maybe a new romance (or not) with the mysterious painter.

While on one hand unfolding in real time—an hour and fifteen minute modelling session—the play cleverly telescopes time as well.  As the evening progresses, it becomes clear this session is actually an amalgam of all of the Woman’s sessions over the past two years.  Kuchlewska’s structure also plays with realistic and non-realistic representation.  While the action is a realistic portrayal of a modelling session, the Woman’s speech constantly questions and re-positions ideas.  Like a Cubist portrait by Picasso, like the lightning quick leaps of the Woman’s anxious mind, it shows multiple perspectives at once—the possibility that Moncharty died in 1922 or 1925, drowned in a bath or felled by a self-inflicted gunshot, the possibility that the Woman might be good at her newfound job, or maybe that she hates it, or both.

Harmony Stempel gives a fearless, finely nuanced performance as the Woman.  Just by eating an apple and tapping her foot, or staring down the audience from the bathtub, she reveals unspoken volumes about the Woman’s emotional state.   Director Jessi D. Hill paces the evening expertly, letting each emotional beat unfold as gently and slowly (or sharply and quickly) as it needs to, down to the silent, introspective moments when the Woman sits on the chair during breaks from posing.   In a meta-theatrical nod to the play’s setting (an art studio), the audience are provided with easels, paper, and pencils for sketching.

In all, Human Fruit Bowl is at times startling, at times ruefully funny look at one young woman’s journey to discovering that she just might like art (or not), and discovering more about who she is along the way.  

Venue:
Baruch Performing Arts Center : 55 Lexington Avenue