WINTER PARK – Walter Richard Sickert was born in May 1860, and died in January 1942. A painter, he was considered a prominent figure in the modernism movement.
The native of Germany, who spent most of his career in England, is the subject of Roger Floyd’s original play, “The Painter,” and most of the show is set in Sickert’s London studio, where he paints a self-portrait.
The play is now being produced by the Greater Orlando Actors Theatre in Winter Park, through Nov. 3, with a performance on Halloween night.
And I know what you’re thinking right now: boring, boring, boring.
Hey, it’s Halloween season, right? Scarefests like Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights is doing its best to terrify audiences, revival theaters like the Enzian in Maitland are bringing back classic horror movies, and cities like Mount Dora are transforming their parks into menacing Zombie Crawls for costume contests. Who in the world wants to spend their night, especially at this time of year, watching a show about a dude who paints? Why not just splash some paint on your own wall and watch it dry for two hours, right?
In response, I say: Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
In his efforts to dig into the mind of this brilliant and very obsessed painter, veteran Orlando actor Floyd – who wrote the play and also takes on the lead role – covers some disturbingly dark, even horrific corners of the human soul. Because as the audience quickly discovers, there’s a whole lot more to Mr. Sickert than his transition from impressionist movement to modernism.
Consider this: Sickert was in his late twenties in 1888, when an unidentified serial killer began stalking women, particularly prostitutes, in London’s impoverished Whitechapel district. That killer would soon get a nickname, one that has haunted the work of writers, film directors and documentary producers in the decades ever since.
He was dubbed Jack the Ripper.
And while his true identity has never been revealed, Sickert was among the artists who developed a fascination with Jack the Ripper. In fact, that London studio that Sickert resided in became the subject of one of his paintings, “Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom,” because Sickert came to believe he was living in a room once used by the infamous killer. It was his landlady who had come to suspect that a previous lodger might have been Jack himself.
Over the decades since Sickert’s death, another theory has arisen. Could Sickert have been Jack the Ripper — or his accomplice? Stephen Knight’s 1976 book “Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution,” proposed that idea, based on an interview with a man claiming to be Sickert’s illegitimate son. Two other books, Jean Overton Fuller’s “Sickert and the Ripper Crimes” and Patricia Cornwell’s “Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper,” also considered that theory.
And now Floyd picks it up as well, and explores it in “Painter.”
It is, to say, the least, very good material for a play – and a Halloween production as well.
As Floyd portrays it, Sickert does paint in his studio – but not necessarily alone. He’s haunted by the ghosts of two female prostitutes who became Jack’s victims.
Sickert obsesses on the ripper case, but he also happens to be an extremely twisted soul. As an adult, he’s tormented by memories of the painful treatment he endured as a child for a congenital anomaly of his sex organ – a condition that left him feeling emasculated, less than a man.
Could that have been a psychological motivation for Sickert to have targeted women for such violent, gory deaths?
“The Painter” weaves us back and forth between Sickert, the tortured artist, and Jack the Ripper, the brutal murderer. Sickert seems cruelly brought down by his own inadequacies and limited outlets for his ongoing frustrations, while Jack is, not surprisingly, downright scary. Floyd brings an astonishing degree of raw intensity to the show, no more so than in the stunning scene where he reacts Jack the Ripper’s confession with a priest who urges him to commit suicide as atonement for his horrific deeds. Playing both roles at rapid-fire speed and with the two characters so clearly distinguishable and real, Floyd is nothing less than brilliant.
And the scenes of the murders of both women – played with agonizing despair by Leesa Castaneda and Krystal Gillette – and a stunning twist concerning that self-portrait, all make “The Painter” anything but an artsy study in centuries-old A&E channel biography.
It’s Halloween season, my friends, and if you love gripping, sometimes shocking theater, ask yourself this: do you dare brave Walter Richard Sickert’s studio on a dark night?
If you do, I say this: you will not be bored with what awaits you.
“The Painter” plays through Nov. 3, with show times at 8 p.m. at the GOAT theater at 2431 Aloma Ave., Suite 300. Tickets are $18 for general audience and $15 for students and seniors. Call 407-872-8451 for tickets, or log on to www.goatgroup.org.
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