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Ackland's permanent collection comes alive in Activated Art

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It's a common fantasy: Let's spend the night at the art museum to see if the paintings and sculptures come alive. With its Activated Art project, it seems that UNC-Chapel Hill's Ackland Art Museum is in our heads. This is the brainchild of Dana Coen, director of the Writing for the Screen and Stage program at UNC, who convinced the museum to commission original plays by well-known Tar Heel writers based on pieces in the permanent collection, and then to stage them in the galleries in front of the works.

In Clyde Edgerton's Wisdom, two museum security guards (Allan Maule and Thom Gradisher) banter around the Jules Dalou statuette "Wisdom Supporting Liberty" (1889), although their authority is undermined by the pained self-referentiality of the play. Edgerton's scenario, in which one entrepreneurial guard pitches to the other his scheme for a military funeral militia, responds solely to the artwork's title, half-positing the idea of liberty's collapse in the absence of wisdom. Ignoring the statuette, he leaves the art object almost wholly unused in this scene.

Marianne Gingher's play Washing animates a Jean-Pierre-Alexandre Antigna genre painting (1860) of the same title, in which washerwomen launder clothing in a lyrically lit creek. Gingher gives UNC seniors Jillian Vogel and Ramey Mize, who play a couple of harried women folding clothes at a modern laundromat, plenty of bright and sassy lines to say, but she weighs the play down with a relentless laundry conceit that's tedious even before the delivery of lines like "We're no more than pieces of lint." A lighter touch would have made the metaphor more sincere.

Coen's one-woman play The Last Word, in the shotgun gallery housing Milton Avery's painting "Devilish Nude" (1962), parlays the intimacy of the space into a close-up opportunity to see a character develop by subtle degrees. Sandwiched between two facing areas of chairs, actress Lenore Field has maybe six square feet to work with as she plays a sardonic cleaning woman hired to tidy Avery's studio. Hardened by life, she tries to engage the famously reticent painter, who once quipped, "Why talk when you can paint?" Field's crisp handling of Coen's taut script with an audience almost on top of her and Coen's perceptive usage of Avery's painting make The Last Word the evening's highlight. But Daniel Wallace's Widget, which closes the program, comes close.

The program notes allege that Widget is Wallace's first play, but the novelist's experience with screenplays is apparent, amplified through Joseph Megel's directorial handiwork, in the sitcom-like scamper of the lines. Wallace imagines a dialogue of manners between two adjacent late 18th-century French portraits. By turns hilarious and touching, and with a cast that includes John Feltch, Marcia Edmundson and Brandon Rafalson, Widget picks up on Wallace's perceived yearnings of the painted nobles to lead three-dimensional lives.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Carolina fictions."

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