Jimmy Camicia, N.Y. bard, discovers why the painter fascinated Genet
A painter speaks: “What do you see when you look at my ‘Anatomy Lesson of Professor Tulp,’ that phony little bastard? …There’s Tulp, pontificating —I mean, lecturing—to a bunch of men huddled around a corpse.
“That’s no ordinary corpse . . . He was called ‘The Kid,’ and he was a thief, so they hung him. Me and The Kid, we came from the same hometown, Leiden …With all that happened to me here in Amsterdam, I forgot ?- until I got the commission to paint Doc Tulp’s annual anatomy lesson . . .
“What do you see when you look at ‘The Militia Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq’? Do you see the end, death overshadowing life, birth? . . . It’s all there. Me, too. I’m way in back, peeking, observing . . .
“They liked the painting well enough. ‘Quite good,’ they said. ‘Different.’ ‘Not traditional.’ A few assholes complained. Some didn’t want to pay. So what else was new? Quite good? It was a fucking miracle!”
A poet/playwright speaks. His name is Jimmy Camicia, and among many other things he was co-founder, artistic director, and chief writer of the gay scene’s internationally applauded Hot Peaches theater troupe. What he has now written is a play called “Tulips & Cadavers” that’s at Theater for the New City through April 11.
“I was writing a play about Jean Genet,” Camicia says, “and discovered that at the end of his life Genet became interested in Rembrandt. He even wrote a paper on him. I couldn’t see the connection. This was so unlike Genet. I was not interested in Rembrandt, but I started looking at these paintings, wanting to know why the hell is this guy so great. What’s so great about him?
“Well, what I found out is that if you look at a lot of them, you realize that all his life he’s painting the psyche of his subjects. From just two or three paintings, you wouldn’t notice it, but if you look at lots, it’s always there, always there.
“And those faces ? They look like anybody. Anybody on the street anywhere. Your neighbors. People he picked up on the streets.
“Then this other thing. He painted Jews as Jews, Jesus as a Semite. Now that interested me,” says Jimmy Camicia, who, when you ask him if he’s Jewish, replies with a wicked Italian-American smile: “Only in my mind.”
Camicia spent the past two summers researching Rembrandt in Amsterdam, and now says: “Amsterdam, you know, is a very small town, something like the West Village, and the Jews who had taken refuge in Holland in the 1600s were not so loved in Amsterdam either.
“So that got me interested—the whole thing about his picking up and painting street people, and the thing about painting Jews as Jews.
“And there’s also this: Everybody at the time said of Rembrandt’s painting: ‘It’s dark, it’s bad, it’s muddy’—but he goes on painting, just goes on and on, and gets better and better, with the late paintings being almost abstract.
“Think of it this way,” says writer Camicia. “You’re a writer, and everybody says: ‘You’re writing is shit,’ but you keep on writing. You have the fortitude to just keep on.”
What gives “Tulips & Cadavers” a certain added interest, added complexity, is that Rembrandt and his contemporaries, particularly his women — and he burnt out one woman after another — appear as characters of a play within a play.
Here we are, that is, in Theater for the New City, where three people are struggling against the bare bones of Off Off Broadway to bring forth a drama about the life and times and darkening, lonely last hours of the painter and etcher Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (1606-1669).
The three people are a sardonic, demanding, nameless actor-director who’s to play Rembrandt; a high-strung writer-producer-actor named Jean, who assumes all other male and several female roles; and an all-purpose actress-stage manager who in this show portrays a coarse, brassy, generous prostitute named Flora.
Both the actor-director and the writer-producer-actor are, per Camicia’s script, gay males.
Carrying the complexity, and an in-joke, one step farther is the writer-producer’s explosion when disaster looms:
“The budget, from Crystal. Ten thousand plus! You got 10 thou? Ten thou to put on a lousy little off-off show nobody’ll see?”
Crystal is none other than TNC co-founder and prime mover Crystal Field. Who, as it happens, is also actress Crystal Field. Who, as it further happens, is in “Tulips & Cadavers” as the actress-stage manager playing Flora.
Her colleagues on stage here are Camicia himself, who not only directs, but has had to step into the role of Rembrandt because of a heart attack suffered by Harvey Tavel, and Craig Meade as the Jean who plays all the other men. Camicia himself has directed the production.
Doing it as a play within a play enabled him, he says, to put Rembrandt’s observations and dialogue into contemporary language, bad words and all, and to point up the differences as well as the similarities between then and now, the 1600s and 2004.
As for the homosexual factor? “It has to do with the idea of Rembrandt getting screwed, not in the sexual sense, because Rembrandt himself screwed the maid, screwed everybody, when his wife Saskia died. But in the sense of getting screwed by society. They went after him in a big way—the other artists and the town fathers. He lost his house, lost everything, went bankrupt.”
There is today a Rembrandt Research Center on the top floor of what was once the bigger of his two houses.
“But his little house is just a furniture store with a plaque on it. Holland is curious. There’s something about the Dutch. They’ve spent billions on Van Gogh — billions! — but you can’t even find a postcard on Rembrandt.”
The more flaming of the two men who must act out the play within the play is Jean, the writer-producer. The name is not accidental.
“Since I got into this through Jean Genet, I carried it over.”
Might Jean not also be taken as a stand-in for, well, Jimmy Camicia? “Of course!” said Jimmy Camicia. “And maybe they’re all myself.”
Camicia, who has just turned 60, is a product of Elizabeth, New Jersey. His family “did what Italians do—buy houses, rent them out, made a lot of money, got sick, hospitals took the money. Typical American story.”
His past includes a bachelor’s degree from Bard College, four successful years as a junior marketing executive in London, a spell of relaxation in Marrakesh, bartending in Berlin, and a question to himself about his own poetry in the mid-1970s: “Why isn’t this in the theater?”
So he put it there and called it “The Divas of Sheridan Square,” and put it on stage at TNC and elsewhere.
“People went crazy. Took it to Europe. Same reaction. Took it to London, to a theater south of the river. Nobody went south of the river in those days. Put it on in this little hole. First night nobody came. Second night, jammed. Took it to Holland, Germany, on and on.”
Camicia came back to New York after that.
“I’d lived in the West Village, but now it seemed as if everything was happening in the East Village, so I moved there. One day when I was out walking I saw all these garbage cans on my block. Thought what the hell, and moved back to the West Village.”
That is where Jimmy Camicia remains to this day. Except when he’s keeping an eye on things Rembrandt at TNC, First Avenue and 10th Street —in the East Village.