Robert Patrick is well known as one of the most representative of the gay playwrights of the 1960s and 1970s. According to Patrick’s own accounts, he didn’t know exactly what he was doing. There was no handbook for gay playwrights available. It was all pretty much unchartered territory, but somehow he and a very few others began to write in a meaningful way to their audience, the gay community. No matter the consequences, he just knew the stories he had imagined had to be written down and presented in a
“Michelangelo’s Models: A Historic Fantasia in Three Acts” is an unusual work to say the least. First of all many of the figures that Patrick put together were not actual contemporaries. He used the license of a playwright to come up with a plot that was not so much based on historic fact as it was on literary devices. Today there is ample evidence to verify that Michelangelo, for example, was gay. At the time Patrick was beginning his storied career, very few people outside the academic world knew or cared about his love life. Indeed, the social climate during this time was just thawing for the gay community. The Stonewall riots, considered a galvanizing event had yet to occur, but things were opening up in such a way that Patrick was able to write about what he knew. While the historic figures were probably very different in many ways, he selected various types of characters he had collected from reality and superimposed their traits onto these brilliant Renaissance men.
There is much humor within the play’s three acts as well as valid dramatic action between the actors. Perhaps not surprisingly, much of what it has to say is still viable today. It does serve to comment in an effective manner on the human condition. Michael Martin, who served as producer, director and actor for this production assembled an impressive cast. Sadly, Hurricane Issac cut in half what should have been two weekends of performances at the original venue (older theater) at Kenner’s Theaters for the Performing Arts. Joshua Parham as Tondo was the first actor who impressed the audience. He is a cocky, self-obsessed hustler of the first magnitude who goes where the money, power and influence goes. But, mostly, the money. Joseph Meissner, not seen on the stage in some time, was an excellent choice of Michelangelo. He fully captured the complexity of the artist and his desire to love and be loved. He is lustful towards one statuesque figure of a man – Tommaso dei Cavilieri (Matt Story) – who is conflicted in his attraction to men and women. These mixed signals confound Michelangelo, but the fault truly lies not in his own honest feelings. There is little doubt that the modern equivalent of a closeted young man unable to be free to act on his own sexual attraction and desire because of the mores of society – 15th Century Italy or 20th Century America – was only one part of what Patrick intended to plumb in “Michelangelo’s Models.”
Indeed, each of the figures is a model of a different sort of individual. Robert Jahncke is Leonardo da Vinci, who seems to be less an artistic rival than a romantic rival in the play. There is the deliciously lewd and crude Sandro Botticelli played with glee by Michael Sullivan. If there’s someone available for a tryst, Botticelli is ready, literally, to hop on. Famous architect Donato Bramante was played as a wily opportunist by the brilliant Bob Edes, whose role was sadly too small. Lila Hay Owen, as acclaimed beauty and noblewoman Simonetta Vespuchi, was the lone female in the cast displaying her obvious charms to those that were attracted to her. Paramount among her paramours was Richard Mayer, who played artist Raphael as a shrewd observer, ready to pounce when it suited his need. Interestingly, Raphael, Leonardo and Michelangelo, who did know of each other were largely distrustful of their artistic rivals. According to historical record, Michelangelo detested Leonardo and thought even less of Raphael. But in Patrick’s play Michelangelo and Leonardo are seen as buddies, aging queens who accept the fact that their glory days are behind them. They are pragmatic and supportive of each other in a curiously respectful manner despite major artistic differences. This kind of relationship is most unusual and would border on what is called today a “bromance.” It is doubtful that few playwrights had an opportunity to write about this kind of relationship before Patrick.
Newcomer Jacob Germain did very well in his acting debut as Ignudo, a streetwise urchin, who turns out to be Michelangelo’s most devoted servant, lover and eventual model. There is little question Ignudo was probably based on at least one down on his luck hustler Patrick knew while living in New York during his early days there, but he may be a composite of several people. It was a brilliant device by the playwright to insert a character who accepts his lot in life with a happy resignation. His choice is to survive as best he can, given the alternative is starvation, disease and possible death in the streets. His motive is probably the most honest and heartfelt in the play. Lastly, Martin portrayed Pope Julius II, whom historians have dubbed “The Fearsome Pope.” Julius was a noted supporter of the arts, hence his inclusion in “Michelangelo’s Models.” Patrick chose to paint the pontiff as a crafty and wise power broker, who imposed his will with absolute authority. Commissions from the pope are seen as little more than political plums he can dispense to the hungry and talented artists.
Martin has announced that he hopes to remount this shortened production in the late fall or winter. Indeed, there is much to enjoy in this play with its humor and touching dramatic scenes and the theatre community should be thankful to Martin for bringing Patrick’s work to the stage again.