Tonight, The Tank turns off its lights for four days, for its annual DarkFest. The midtown theater has invited five known and emerging acts to do whatever they want, as long as they steer clear of the power grid. In previous years, that has meant anonymous confessions in the pitch black, shows illuminated with nothing but glow tape, and a mining-disaster story lit only with hard-hat headlamps.
This year, in Nec Spe / Nec Metu (“No Hope, No Fear”), handheld lanterns will evoke the candle-lit time of Caravaggio (played by Adam Belvo) and his lesser-known contemporary Artemisia Gentileschi (played by Belvo’s artistic partner Sara Fellini; together they’re Spit & Vigor). “Most of the play will take place in near darkness,” said Belvo, “Which is perfect for both of these artists because the paintings they did involved heavy chiaroscuro, with dark shadows and the really bright spots.” In this way, the play is a Caravaggist painting in its own right.
A child during Caravaggio’s primetime, Artemisia not only became strongly influenced by the Baroque Italian master’s revolutionary style, but also witnessed the tragedy of his life, which was characterized by an inclination toward “sin and redemption, light and darkness,” Belvo said. “Caravaggio was extremely devoutly Catholic, but then also had this extremely violent opposite side.”
A madness allegedly induced by painter’s colic – the consequences of continuously imbibing lead when thinning the paint – left Caravaggio “flying into fits of rage and madness,” Belvo said. His volatility culminated in his downfall when he tried to castrate Ranuccio Tomassoni and ended up killing the pimp and romantic rival.
Belvo, who was raised Catholic, identifies with the extremities that informed Carvaggio’s life and art. Caravaggio sought “redemption in his paintings,” Belvo said. “He tried to paint away his sins.” With a tumultuous past of his own, Belvo understands this urge to repent through art. “That early inculcation of shame and guilt, those structures of Catholicism still kind of hold,” he said. “I understand it when you feel so guilty over this particular thing that it drives you further in the other direction to want to overcome that sin, to want to paint better than anybody has ever painted before, to create something that is so lifelike that you could touch it or it could touch you. It’s a story that essentially parallels my own.”
Where Belvo and Fellini use lanterns, Meghan Finn will employ a broader pallet when she directs The Lucky Dark, a play about two polyamorous relationships by Chana Porter. Lighting designer Kate McGee will work with black mylar, candles and even laptop screens to create the play’s theatrical moods without electricity.
Indebted to New York’s Downtown experimental scene of the last 40 years, McGee aims to challenge the idea that theater is something to be passively received. By disrupting the conventional partition of bright light (stage) and darkness (audience) and thereby breaching the fourth wall, McGee hopes to make theater that “forces a confrontation between your physical presence and the physical presence of another person,” wherein “decisions occur in your body as opposed to your mind, viscerally as opposed to cerebrally.”
These experimental ideals fit well with the daring mission of The Tank. “New York is still New York here,” said Meghan Finn, who is also one of the theater’s artistic directors. “There are still crazy and exciting things that happen in this theater. You can still get really blown away by someone.”