The first word that comes to mind to describe ‘Human Fruit Bowl,’ a one-woman play starring Harmony Stempel, is “beautiful.” Beauty of the naked human form; of the language so naturally delivered and of the idea that the dynamic between artist and muse is the very life force that conjures art into being.
The play opens even while the audience is filing into the tiny theater. In a plush red robe, hair tied up loosely, Stempel sits nonchalantly in a chair, her only other prop a bath tub. She gives the audience only the occasional fleeting glance, more interested in checking her i-phone, applying lip gloss or examining her nails. As she stands up, disrobes and steps into the bath, we come to realize that her character has been on a five-minute break from her still-life modeling session.
From the outset, we are drawn into the reality of a model’s world. She assumes a pose in the tub that she must hold for an extended period, in complete stillness apart from blinking and breathing, as she points out. She invites the audience to think about how their bodies are positioned at that moment and to imagine staying that way for minutes, even hours on end, all in the name of art. What isn’t still though, is her mind. Her monologue reveals the constant shifts in her stream of consciousness as she goes through her mundane ‘to do’ list, ponders about her own life and rattles off facts and figures about artists and their art.
But the common thread throughout her meandering thoughts is the ability to describe and question the creative process and the significance, if any, of the model/artist relationship.
What is the power of the naked person in the room? “Who does this? Who models for pay for artists they don’t know?” Stempel’s character asks. What qualifies her, or anyone else, as a model? How can an artist derive inspiration from someone who’s thinking about their dry cleaning? The play suggests the answer: it is the artist unaware versus the artist obsessed that renders the naked person either a model or a muse. Some artists elevate models to the status of muse, depending on them completely for their inspiration, while others use models as subjects without a second thought as to who they are. This is demonstrated when Stempel, due to extreme discomfort, has to move out of range of the markings of her previous pose. Addressing this change in situation, she tells us what some artists have said: “Hey. IN THE TUB. You moved your leg.”
Playwright Andrea Kuchlewska makes a case for the muse as essential to the artist’s creativity. She suggests that, as someone who triggers artistic inspiration; who embodies the path to the artist’s creative well, the energy between muse and artist is the power behind the creation:
“That’s it. That’s what it is. A master painter captures the subject’s life force; puts it – renders it – in a painting. The subject’s animus embedded in oil on canvas. Part of [the artist] is in this painting too. Maybe all of both of them.”
Harmony Stempel’s delivery is that of a natural conversationalist; she speaks as if thoughts are only just occurring to her, creating a sense of intimacy where it feels like one is eavesdropping on her inner world. Stillness and silence play a major part in this production, giving the audience time and space to consider the layered ideas so cleverly written into the script. It is particularly apt at the end as Stempel, sitting in her chair, wordlessly clicks through a number of famous paintings projected on the wall, leaving the last one, a portrait of herself, on display. A bathtub. A woman standing in front of it, her head bowed gracefully to one side, a towel wrapped around her. Both hands elegantly raising her towel above her knees.
Stempel rises and stands in front of the painting. And as she carefully places her feet within the confines of the floor tape and slowly adjusts her towel to reflect the woman in the painting, we are struck by the vastness of the world behind the pose.