- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 19, 2009

For centuries, art scholars and lovers - as well as best-selling author Dan Brown in “The Da Vinci Code”- have pondered just what is behind the “Mona Lisa’s” smile and the look of jaded majesty in her brown-eyed gaze.

Playwright Victor Lodato is the latest to fall under “Mona Lisa’s” spell in the entrancing “The Woman Who Amuses Herself,” featuring Nigel Reed in a virtuoso one-man performance at Theater Alliance under the gifted direction of Kasi Campbell.

Mr. Reed plays 10 characters, male and female, who present their varying views on “La Gioconda” (the painting’s real name), which translated from Italian means “the woman who amuses herself.”

Based on a true incident, the chief obsessor over the “Mona Lisa” is Vincenzo Perugia, a house painter and glazier at the Louvre who hides the painting under his work clothes one morning in 1911 and goes back to his garret in Paris. An Italian patriot, Perugia intends to return “Mona” to her native country. Instead, he spends more than two years in her company, before finally traveling to Italy - where he expects a reward for his efforts - and promptly getting arrested for art theft.

When questioned by authorities, Perugia insists that there is “no damage to her.”



But what about him?

Portrayed with unsettling intensity by Mr. Reed, Perugia is drawn into the very fibers of the work, possessed like a lover. “I can’t believe I am alone with you,” he murmurs to the famous face. Yet this love affair has its ups and downs as the increasingly unhinged Perugia begins to think “Mona Lisa” is silently upbraiding him for drinking too much and consorting with loose women.

In contrast to Perugia’s agonizing adoration are other perceptions of the “Mona Lisa.” They range from Oxford don Walter Pater’s sensual assessment of her charms, to a third-grade New Jersey schoolteacher who urges her students to come up with their own story behind the smile, to an English journalist who eloquently witnesses responses to the painting when it’s briefly displayed in Italy - and, finally, Marcel Duchamp, the surrealist and parodist involved in a love-hate relationship with the old masters.

Mr. Reed dexterously portrays this array of characters. The most affecting perhaps is a sensitive third-grade girl who relates a nightmare about the “Mona Lisa” that is redeemed by her beauty, and the story of a 15th-century monk who believes in the redemptive power of art.

The play runs on a tad too long, and the portrayal of Mr. Duchamp’s prankish deconstruction of the painting may have wowed them in the cubist period but seems self-consciously capricious today. The fact that this woman continues to fascinate everyone from playwrights to pulp-fiction writers attests to the enduring power and mystery of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece.

★ ★ ★

WHAT: “The Woman Who Amuses Herself,” by Victor Lodato

WHERE: Theater Alliance, 1365 H St, NE

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Through June 6.

TICKETS: $30

PHONE: 866/811-4111

WEBSITE: www.theateralliance.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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