“When non-practitioners write about music…musicians (even second-raters) twitch.” Composer/diarist Ned Rorem made this observation about novelists, but playwrights and filmmakers have had an equally difficult time accurately portraying musicians—to really get how creating music works and what musicians’ lives are like, without misrepresentation, maudlinness, or melodrama. (Watch Roger Daltrey make wild love to the tempo of an accelerating metronome in Lisztomania, then watch Richard Dreyfuss take 20 years to write a three-minute orchestra piece in Mr. Holland’s Opus, and see if the first is really so much more ludicrous than the second.)
I don’t know if Joy McCullough-Carranza is herself a musician; she may indeed be, seeing as how her new play Smoke & Dust (presented by Macha Theatre Works, directed by Amy Poisson) didn’t make me twitch at all. Her play—one-third of it, to be exact—is an enjoyable, intriguing, and, considering what little we know of her, dramatically plausible imagining of the career of Barbara Strozzi (1619–77), a richly talented singer and composer whose navigation of Venice’s artistic circles was complicated, though not forestalled, by her gender. She seems to have been the illegitimate daughter of a well-off poet; the illegitimacy made her unmarriageable, but the money, and her father’s sympathetic open-mindedness, led him to establish a salon where Strozzi could display her music and voice, which attracted fashionable admirers.
But her story is a play-within-a-play; Smoke & Dust also shows us the theater troupe preparing a show about Strozzi. The third narrative layer—told entirely in videos—concerns the younger sister of the actress who plays Strozzi. The parallels are cleverly set up; the most apparent one is that all three women—the sister (Belle Pugh), the actress, and the composer (both Bianca Raso)—have to negotiate how they’re going to survive financially and what compromises that will entail. The real Strozzi may or may not have been a courtesan; McCullough-Carranza’s Strozzi unashamedly chooses that path—not only as an alternative to entering a convent, which was practically the only option available to illegitimate daughters in 17th-century Italy, but, in an eye-opening plot twist, because it gives her power: Simply find a wealthy patron and keep on making music. Beauty, brains, sex, and art are commodities, the play’s Strozzi realizes, all four more or less equally valued in Venice, and she pragmatically sets herself up for business.
If while watching Smoke & Dust you deplore the fact that becoming a courtesan was the only way a female genius could achieve financial/artistic independence back then (and for some time afterward), it won’t be because McCullough-Carranza goads you to. Judging any woman’s choices is not her game here, though neither is whitewashing the realities that necessitate those choices. And a genius Strozzi was indeed, as generous samples of her ravishing, headily expressive music prove, performed absorbingly and deliciously by Raso and keyboardist Michael Blackwood.
This is the Seattle-based McCullough-Carranza’s second play about a female artist from the Italian baroque; her first—now both a play and a novel, Blood Water Paint—is the story of painter Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1656). It was staged in 2015 by Live Girls! theater, and released as a book earlier this month. There’s a neat call-back in Smoke & Dust, as Strozzi becomes wealthy enough to purchase one of Gentileschi’s paintings. (Several of Gentileschi’s works depict women about to kill, killing, or just having killed men; read the novel, and that’ll make perfect sense.)
As diverting as Smoke & Dust’s parallel plots are, you may find yourself eventually asking “So?” But like a master composer building a climax by overlapping melodies you never guessed would sound great simultaneously, McCullough-Carranza at last dovetails her tales to provide a denouement as dramatically wrenching as it is deftly constructed. Both aspects are thrilling. Another effective twist: I got the impression that McCullough-Carranza felt that to make the message of her play simply “Women have always had to put up with crap” wouldn’t have been an interesting enough challenge, either for her or for the audience, so she didn’t hesitate to make the sub-point “And some of that crap has been thrown by other women.”
Theatre Off Jackson, International District, 409 Seventh Ave. S; 206.340.1049; theatreoffjackson.org. $15–$25. Ends April 14.