Taking it to the streets

Who is defacing popular graffiti art by splashing it with buckets of paint?

That was the question bedeviling New York’s street artists and their fans during the serial art assaults by the person or persons dubbed The Splasher, from late 2006 through June 2007.

Heading into DiverseWorks Thursday night for the opening of The Splasher, I suspected this subject might be a fine fit for Troy Schulze, the show’s creator/director/star, and producing company the Catastrophic Theatre.

This is the second outing for Catastrophic, the company led by Jason Nodler and boasting castaways from his late, lamented Infernal Bridegroom Productions. One of IBP’s most prominent talents as actor and director, Schulze in his years with the troupe developed his own performing identity and following. He generated idiosyncratic new theater pieces built on “found” materials, such as Jerry’s World, based on broadcasts of cult radio personality Joe Frank; and Me-sci-ah, drawing on interviews with Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and the outfit’s best-known proponent, Tom Cruise. That latter work proved prescient, well ahead of the societal curve on the “What’s up with Tom?” meter.

In content and spirit, The Splasher does seem the right show for Schulze and Catastrophic — so far as it goes. It just doesn’t go far enough. Given the promising theme, the end result seems incomplete and inconclusive.

Schulze again seems to have taken much of his script from actual documents: the rambling, bewildering manifestos left behind at each of The Splasher’s defacements; the disgruntled statements of artists affected; varying opinions of the case expressed on Internet chatrooms.

The drawback with relying chiefly on actual materials is that they don’t necessarily add up to a complete show. There’s not enough direct communication between The Splasher and his targets, mostly street artists who’ve gone on to commercial success, to build much drama.

Though the show’s succession of brief scenes is lively, none gains much traction. The one-hour piece ends abruptly, as did the attacks, after a troublemaker is arrested trying to detonate a “stink bomb” at a gallery opening. He’s suspected of being The Splasher, but the actual identity, like much about the affair, is unclear at the close.

At several points, Schulze juxtaposes The Splasher’s art-vandalism tale with the case of Michael Fay, the American teen publicly caned for vandalism in Singapore in 1994 — presumably as an example of more stringent penalties for vandalism? Even here, the stakes never seem high enough.

The Splasher raises interesting issues and may generate discussion, especially among art fans. What is art and who owns “street” art? When one street artist modifies another’s creation, isn’t it an extension of the same process? What constitutes vandalism or defacement of such art, when the application of the art was vandalism and defacement of someone else’s property to begin with?

In the show’s serio-satiric approach, the artists’ chat comes across as facile, The Splasher’s rants as enigmatic and obtuse. The show skims the issues raised rather than exploring them meaningfully.

Schulze amusingly plays the title role as a sort of Phantom of the Street Art Scene: a hooded mystery man, voice mechanically distorted, with a sly skulking manner, as if trying to disappear into the shadows. His “interview with myself,” talking himself in circles and apparently to exhaustion, is nicely realized.

Walt Zipprian stands out as a hot-headed landlord and, later, in a funny turn as an artist glibly justifying his commercial sellout. Julie Boneau brings bite and sass to one of The Splasher’s feistier victims, darkly vowing retribution.

Tim Thomson’s video sequences boost the show considerably. However, having the “splashings” depicted through projected images makes one wonder. Shouldn’t this show have some real paint splashings onstage to convey the visceral charge and anarchic spirit behind the protagonist’s actions?

As things stand, The Splasher makes only a little splash.