At the Steppenwolf Albert Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago—“The Rembrandt” at the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre has a lot on its mind, trying to touch bases in 90 uninterrupted minutes with such eternal (and tricky subjects) as art and our response to it and mortality, death, and grief. But the play is as elusive as it is allusive, so the play’s pleasures come more from magical performances by Francis Guinan and John Mahoney than from playwright Jessica Dickey’s opaque musings on her lofty themes.
“The Rembrandt” consists of four connected scenes, the first and last set in the present time, the second in painter Rembrandt’s studio in the 17th century, and the third a monologue delivered by the poet Homer in ancient Greece.
The first and longest scene takes place in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. We first meet Henry, a veteran museum guard (Guinan), who speaks directly to the audience about life as a guard, the art he protects, and the kinds of people who come to a museum (The play was first titled “The Guard” when it opened at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., in 2015).
Henry is a gentle soul with a droll wit and a keen eye for the qualities of the art on his beat. Specifically he analyzes the famous Rembrandt painting “Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer” hanging invisible to the audience at the front of the stage. Henry’s informal commentary on the artist’s style is a fascinating mini lesson in art appreciation. Henry is joined by Jonny (Gabriel Ruiz), another museum guard with considerably less appreciation for the masterpieces that surround him, a young art novice (Karen Rodriguez) come to copy the painting, and a young new guard named Dodger (Ty Olwin) who is a graffiti artist with rebellious ideas about art and rules.
The second scene goes back to Rembrandt’s studio, with Guinan now playing the prickly and anxiety-ridden artist. He is tended by a sassy maidservant (Rodriguez) and confronted by the artist’s son Titus (Olwin), fretful that his cranky father is living beyond his means and will bring financial ruin to the household.
That scene segways to ancient Greece where a very salty Homer steps forward to deliver a wry monologue. The final scene returns to modern times, with Henry tending to Simon, a poet and Henry’s long-time partner, who is dying of cancer. They play a beautiful scene balanced between Henry’s terror at his partner’s approaching death, and informal conversation, some of it humorous.
The four scenes all have entertainment value, but for me the production was a triumph of manner over matter–the manner being the outstanding acting, and the matter the playwright’s slender attempts to deal with the Great Truths of life. To Dickey’s credit, she doesn’t preach and doesn’t flaunt academic jargon, nor does she allow talk of death and mortality to descend into the maudlin.
I enjoyed Henry’s low-keyed but insightful commentary on Rembrandt’s style and the play provides an interesting glimpse into the job routine of a museum guard. The play comes to a tender conclusion with Henry sitting teary-eyed on his partner’s deathbed. Such scenes indicate that the playwright is a sensitive and sometimes eloquent writer with a good handle on character and the skill to put snappy dialogue into the mouths of her people.
But I still did not come away deeply moved, either intellectually or emotionally. Part of the problem is that the only scenes that connected fully with me are the modern ones, dominated by Guinan and Mahoney (no surprise there). The shifts to the historical past are abrupt and don’t mesh well with the modern scenes. The Rembrandt scene seemed to meander, sustained only by Guinan’s portrayal of the genius artist as a bit of a curmudgeon.
Hallie Gordon guides her fine ensemble well, especially in the first and fourth scenes. Regina Garcia’s scenic design deftly uses empty canvases to allow the audience to use their imagination to fill in the visual blanks of the frames suspended from the ceiling. Jenny Mannis designed the costumes representing three periods in human history. Ann Wrightson (lighting) and Elisheba Ittoop (sound and original music) contribute effective mood-setting touches to round out the first-rate physical production.
I can envision a more successful play with the action devoted to Henry the museum guard and a more developed Simon, Henry’s partner. The contrast between the crusty poet and the warm and sympathetic museum guard cry for more stage time. There are emotional links between the two that could be explored to considerable dramatic advantage. The three supporting characters in the two modern scenes hint at stories that could be expanded and integrated into a full length play that has no need of Rembrandt and Homer as live personages. Rodriguez, Ruiz, and Olwin, though young, seem on the evidence of their appearances in “The Rembrandt” to be ready for prime time.
“The Rembrandt” runs through November 5 at the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 North Halsted Street. Performances are Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday at 7:30 p,m.; Wednesday at 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 2 and 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20 to $104. Call 312 335 1650 or visit www.steppenwolf.org.
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