Their Wings Were Blue
nytheatre.com review by Josephine Cashman
August 13, 2006
In 1903 Picasso was in his blue period, and one of his paintings was Tragedia (or Beggars by the Sea), depicting a mother, father, and son by the sea. It's a quiet, contemplative study of loneliness and grief, and it's the basis for Carmen Betancourt's original play Their Wings Were Blue. The family comes alive in this "portrait," grieving for the loss of their daughter Sophie, whom Picasso excised from the painting a hundred years ago during its construction. As the play begins, the family escapes both the painting and the museum, and flees into the "real world" as Paintees, pursued by Nottingham, the shadowy, seductive, and vaguely sinister curator of the Museum. Taking refuge with Suzanne and her daughter Toffie, the Paintees struggle to begin life in their brave new world, and continue to search for their missing daughter, whom they believe is alive and nearby.
The mystery of where Sophie is (and has been) is absurdly obvious, and the characters are so inconsistently written that their motives are fuzzy and indistinct at best. Does Enriquetta, who has been obsessed with finding her daughter for a century, so easily give up her search? Would she be so easily seduced by Nottingham, the charming villain of the piece? Would Alonzo so easily forgive his wife, and could a family forgive a kidnapper in the blink of an eye? After 100 years in a painting, the family adapts to life in the 21st century with an ease that is frankly hard to believe. Even Nottingham's motives are confusing: first he is hunting them down to force them back into the painting, and then he's doing everything he can to keep them out of it. We never learn why his intentions or the intentions of any of the characters change so capriciously. Because the characters are so flimsily constructed, the actors don't have much to work with. They do their best to rise above the material, and Celia Schaefer as Enriquetta and Tim Smallwood as Nottingham each do an especially fine job, but sadly, even their lovely command of language and playful acting skills cannot turn this sketch into a masterpiece.
It really is too bad, because the ideas behind the play are marvelous and worth exploring. The idea of paintings moving from one world to another is intriguing and fascinating. It's the stuff of Harry Potter and other beloved childhood fairytales. Betancourt has clearly studied Picasso's painting and her knowledge of it is impressive, but unfortunately the play remains indistinct and its point becomes lost. Director Jocelyn Sawyer's staging is unimaginative and the pacing lags. The lighting, however, is wonderful, with varying shades of blue and white, giving an evocative feel of Picasso's blue period, and also providing a marvelous contrast between life on canvas and life in a world of three dimensions. Ultimately, however, Their Wings Were Blue feels incomplete, and its ending unsatisfying.