Review: GOODNIGHT SWEETHEART, GOODNIGHT at Wilbury Theatre Group

Wilbury's world-premiere production is a feast for the senses

By: May. 30, 2023
Review: GOODNIGHT SWEETHEART, GOODNIGHT at Wilbury Theatre Group

First things first: Darcie Dennigan's one-hour musical exploration of the life of Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653) is a vibrant, intriguing, thought-provoking tour de force. The world-premiere production at the Wilbury Theatre is a visual and sonic feast for the senses, guaranteed to delight (and shock) even the avant-est garde aficionados of theatre while remaining surprisingly grounded.

But don't go expecting a traditional "American musical." It's more a theatrical experience: The play comprises a series of vignettes that loosely echo and parallel the life of Artemisia, enacted (and mostly sung through) by a quartet in the style of the "girl groups" of the 1960s (with spot-on scoring by Niki Healy), and narrated by the hippest docent ever to riffle through index cards. It is fragmentary and allusive, with one foot firmly in the world of feminist art criticism and one in Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty.

If you haven't heard of Artemisia, you're not alone. Now regarded as the most celebrated woman painter of the 17th century (unless you listen to Camille Paglia) her work—as too often happened to women in the arts—was long relegated to the dustbin of history. She was rediscovered in the second half of the 20th century, notably following inclusion in a groundbreaking historical exhibition of women artists in 1976.

As if it wasn't enough being a woman artist in an age when that was exceedingly rare, Artemisia often depicted herself as subject in her paintings, the vast majority of which treated women either in powerful positions or reacting to the oppression of the patriarchy with resistance (and sometimes, with tent pegs...).

Director Josh Short has set the action fully in the round, using the entire rectangular black box of the Wilbury with the audience in bleachers along both long walls. Three raised circular platforms (one sporting a 1930s-style microphone) provide spots for the action and singing and the floor is occupied by a roving "men's chorus," who all wear black business suits and Groucho glasses. (As does the audience; Short has ushers distribute the masks at the door, transforming spectators into voyeurs and bystanders.) Several screens hang above, onto which Artemisia's works are projected as art historian "Mary Garrard" (an actual historical figure who was key to Artemisia's popular resurgence) offers commentary.

The quartet of singers are a delight. Jennifer Mischley turns in a powerhouse performance in the role of "Artemisia," the lead singer of the group, kicking off the show with an engaging early-60s-style number about "nice guys" that perfectly sets the ironic tone. Joining Mischley are Sophie Appel as "Arcangela," Beth Alianiello as "Anniella," and Daraja Hinds as "Palmira." All have fine voices and turn in sharp, nicely textured performances as they enact—in a calculatedly anachronistic manner—the experiences that shaped Artemisia's sensibilities (a traumatic episode of sexual violence, the dozing disregard of her male contemporaries, the mythic and biblical stories repurposed in her works.) Threaded throughout the songs are breaks for delightfully arch commentary by Garrard (played with gusto by understudy Lydia Grosswendt in the performance this reviewer saw). As she says at one point, "I only have two registers: pretending not to be pissed off, and pissed off."

The script by Darcie Dennigan is full of those snarky little truth bombs, totally appropriate in tone for a show about the fate of women in art. The score is peppered with lyrics like, "I do not understand/This book in my hand/Oh, Aristotle, you're not my daddy." Surveying contemporary moments of collective resistance, Dennigan's narrator despairs, "We will have a book club and read eleven books, fetishize the cocktails we'll serve, and talk about how long it takes to find a good therapist in this f**ing city."

Pairing perfectly with Dennigan's lyrics is the score by Niki Healy, which precisely evokes the progressions and riffs of 60s singing groups. None of the tunes are derivative; rather, they penetrate to the essence of the songbook of the era and work superbly to contrast the sharp edged lyrics. A four-piece pit band ably captures the vibe.

As the show progresses, we move further and further into the world of Artemisia's paintings, several of which depict vivid moments of violence against male oppressors. The quartet engages in enactment of two of Artemisia's more graphic works: a beheading ("Judith Slaying Holofernes") and that tent peg pounded into a head ("Jael and Sisera") before we eventually come to a culminant moment in Artemisia's "Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting."

The crisp video design by Andy Russ and delightful period costumes by Matt Oxley deserve special mention, as does the dutiful work of the "volunteer men's chorus" who watch the action, occupy the floor, and occasionally menace the quartet (in one powerful scene, closing in on them while chanting "You're going to jail/we're taking your kids.")

You will want to be aware that violence is integral to this story and includes references to rape, sexual assault, and torture. If those topics are troubling, this is not a show for you. However, nothing is gratuitous and everything is handled with appropriate gravitas (though some might disagree about the treatment of Holofernes' severed head...)

It's not a perfect show. The episodic structure provides little opportunity for the members of the quartet to do extended character work, and the arc of the piece doesn't seem to rise much beyond a second-wave feminist manifesto (at one point they muse "we should serve men," with that little Twilight Zone twist on "serve.") But a case can be made that this is aligned with the story being told: what possibilities for resistance did a 17th century woman artist actually have? And on the technical side, while the women were generally well miked, the men's chorus—and notably, their leader, Brien Lang—were either imperfectly audible or way too loud. But those are the kind of issues that get worked out during the run.

If you're the kind of theatergoer who appreciates a compact, stylish show that's not afraid of moments of transgression, you will find a lot to like here. And if you're like this reviewer, you'll find yourself prompted to venture down a rabbit hole learning more about Artemisia's life and times. Not your average musical. Recommended.

Goodnight Sweeheart, Goodnight, by Darcie Dennigan, music by Niki Healy, directed by Josh Short. Wilbury Theatre Group, 475 Valley St. Providence, May 25 – June 11, ​Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm; Sun at 2:00pm. Tickets: $5-$55 available at

Photo: Erin X. Smithers


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From This Author - John McDaid

John G. McDaid is an award-winning science fiction writer and freelance journalist from Portsmouth, RI. He grew up in NYC, where visits to Broadway sparked a life-long love of theater. He worked both ... John McDaid">(read more about this author)


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