Whether or not the reference is accidental, it seems somehow apt that a play about a young graffiti artist should be set in a small town called Van Vechten, which isn’t a place at all, but a person. Carl Van Vechten was an American photographer and patron of the arts who backed the Harlem Renaissance and was literary executor to Gertrude Stein. Aimee Stright is an artist of an altogether different breed, in need not only of patronage but, crucially, of guidance, and unlikely to find either in a town like Van Vechten, whose name is as obscure as its artistic namesake.
Silva Semerciyan’s play takes its title from Marc Chagall’s 1911 painting of the same name, a cubist fairy tale which interweaves both Russian and Yiddish elements of Eastern European folklore. Semerciyan’s method here is analogous, drawing an uneasy cultural exchange between constitutional-right-claiming gun-slingers and bible-bashing Mid-Westerners. Caught between them, with her admiration for the British graffiti artist Banksy, is Aimee Stright, a typical angst-ridden American teenager with nobody to turn to except Randy Hostetler, her mother’s new boyfriend, who it turns out is more interested in having sex with her than in providing her with the paternal care she so desperately needs.
Despite feeling like a rehash of a dozen different American films, Semerciyan’s script is strong, and manages to infuse a surprising amount of humour into what could easily have been a very heavy 90 minutes. It does so by parodying the very terms by which it defines itself, acting as both a narrative of supposed real-life events and as a verbatim theatre project in the making based on those events, which Manda Hoffman promises will be ‘like The Laramie Project, only better.’ Chloe Harris simmers as Aimee, playing the now game throughout, which makes even her hasty transformation into psychopathic killer in the play’s final moments somehow come off miraculously; while David Michaels’ Randy is a Lothario without the lechery, a man in the midst of a mid-life crisis who is every bit as deluded as the girl he seduces.
Yet if the strength of Semericiyan’s writing lies in its ability to draw on a plethora of sources from modern American folklore, finding respite from plagiarism in its recourse to parody, the same cannot be said of Jess Curtis’ set, which unfortunately falls short of my initial expectations. Admittedly, the space at Theatre 503 is a small one, and even six actors, each with their own stage box, makes it feels cramped. But there was a gaping opportunity in this production to make use of the trope of graffiti to create some striking stage imagery on those blank white walls hemmed in by Chagallian shapes – an opportunity which was unfortunately passed over, perhaps in order to focus more on Aimee’s relationship with Randy.
Perhaps this is down to the production’s marketing rather than direction; I’d been expecting a play about a graffiti artist who wants to be Bansky, but Bansky actually only gets one mention in the script, and a fleeting one at that. Semerciyan has given us a modern day morality play about a young girl’s loss of faith in the face of the hypocrisy of religion, but aside from Chloe Harris’ performance, this production shows us only glimpses of that hypocrisy amid its sterile white-clad congregants.