08 Fringe: “Meet the Rock”

Sam Harper as Norman Rockwell in “Meet the Rock”

On the second Saturday of the 2008 Indianapolis Fringe Festival I began my intake of shows with a 4:30 performance of “Meet the Rock,” starring Indianapolis resident Sam Harper.  Harper is a Rockwell interpreter licensed by Norman Rockwell Licensing Company, Niles, IL.  He originally researched and performed this role to accompany a Rockwell exhibit at the Indianapolis Children’s Museum in 2005.

I think his Fringe show is still experiencing some growing pains in the transition from one-person interpretation to fully-staged ensemble show.  The Fringe show has some weaknesses related to pacing, cohesiveness, and timing (more about these in a moment.)

However, I enjoyed it.  I learned a lot about “America’s favorite artist,” Norman Rockwell, and I admired the golly-gee enthusiasm of Harper and “Rockwell’s favorite PBS interviewer,” Charlene Rose (“no connection to Charlie”), played by Phyllis Harvey.

In “Meet the Rock,” Norman Rockwell and Charlene Rose sit at a small table between a large screen and a clothes tree covered with various items, as if they are doing a PBS interview and we are their studio audience.  Rose is lovely and refined.  Rockwell is joking and eager.  As they read aloud from their scripts, they also banter back and forth. Sometimes the improvised bantering gets in the way of the show rather than enriching it, and makes for a too-slow pace. 

Rose asks the famous artist questions about his work, his life, his inspirations, and his ideas about art in general.  She refers to books about him and holds up DVDs of his work. 

The DVDs confused me and took me out of the show for a moment.  The fact that Rockwell (1894-1978) is still alive in this show had made me think that we were in a time before there were DVDs.

Rockwell answers Rose in a variety of ways.  For example, he reads excerpts from fan mail he has received via email and traditional mail.  Again, the reference to email seemed inconsistent with what had already been introduced about the show’s time period.

Rockwell also tells anecdotes from his personal life and career.  He shows and talks about PowerPoint slides of his paintings.  The PowerPoint slides did not distract me the way that Rose holding up the DVDs or Rockwell reading from an email had, perhaps because a TV show during Rockwell’s lifetime could have included camera shots of paintings.

But also, by the time a few PowerPoint slides had appeared I had stopped worrying about the show’s artistic cohesiveness and started to just enjoy it for what it was teaching me.

I enjoyed learning not only about Rockwell’s work but about the work of other artists who affected him, including Grandma Moses, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, and Rembrandt.  From time to time in the show, Harper as Rockwell takes an apron, a pair of paint-spattered shoes, a wild wig, a velvet cape, and other costume pieces and props from the clothing tree and either puts them on to become the other artists that have influenced him, or he pretends the items are representative artifacts that the artists have sent to Rockwell to share with us.

He quotes these other artists as well.  Andy Warhol, for example, said, “Art is anything you can get away with.”  Rockwell did not agree with this quote.  Warhol and Pollack were each a kind of nemesis for him.  Pollack told him to “stick to your honey and milk painting.”  Other artists inspired him.  It was interesting to learn about all of them.

I was surprised to learn that Thomas Rockwell, the author of the popular children’s book, How to Eat Fried Worms, is Norman Rockwell’s son.

I was surprised, too, to learn about Rockwell’s courage in painting to raise awareness of racism.  Harper showed us an actual copy of the January 14, 1967 issue of Look magazine in which Rockwell’s “The Problem We All Live With” painting of Ruby Bridges and her police escort to school first appeared as a double-page spread.

Sometimes in this show there are recorded sound effects that come too late or are just too out-of-the-blue.  A recorded “meow” comes several sentences after one of the performers makes a catty remark, for example, or a recording of Jackson Pollack saying, “Just call me ‘Jack the Dripper'” comes several moments after Rose and Rockwell’s conversation about Pollack.  

I wonder if the fact that this particular performance started a few minutes late has anything to do with the problems with the sound effects.  A Fringe volunteer told those of us who were waiting in the lobby before the show that Harper had had to run home for his sound effects CD.  Maybe it was just not a good day for sound effects.

Rose holds up a beautifully painted “Applause” sign when Rockwell enters, but then never uses the sign again.  This is another missed opportunity.   The position of Associate Producer (filled by Mark Preston) is an onstage role as well as a backstage position.  The AP comes out on stage at the end of the show and holds up song cards for the audience to read as we sing along with Rockwell and Rose.  Perhaps the AP’s role could be expanded to include holding up the applause sign more often throughout the show, too. 

Either way, I loved Mark Preston’s work in “Our Dad Is in Atlantis” at the Phoenix this past spring.  He is a cutie in this show as well.

Even with all of my quibbles with “Meet the Rock,” I am glad I went to see it.  This show made me want to pour over a book from my public library that shows all of Norman Rockwell’s 321(!) beautiful Saturday Evening Post covers.

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

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