3.5 out of 4 stars
What happens when you touch a painting? What if the painting touches you? In its 42nd season, Steppenwolf Theatre Company presents the Chicago premiere of The Rembrandt, written by Jessica Dickey and directed by Hallie Gordon. A smart and endearing piece that follows a museum guard as he decides to touch a famous Rembrandt painting and a remarkable journey across the ages ensues. This play explores the power of creative expression and the sacrifices made in the pursuit of it.
There are three types of visitors to a museum according to Henry, the museum guard: the tourists, the patrons, and the seekers looking to find something more. Before his job as a guard, Henry was formerly an art history teacher. Within the first scene the audience meets a plethora of artists, art lovers and other workers. Each portrays their own perspectives vividly in this one public space and delves into the subculture of museum guard life, which playwright Dickey says was “fascinating” to research. The layering of character development is executed well through the beginning dialogues, as well as acting the subtext, particularly by Francis Guinan (Henry/Rembrandt). Guinan is a Steppenwolf Theatre Company ensemble member and has appeared in more than 30 Steppenwolf productions including Hir, The Herd, The Book Theif, and August: Osage County. Guinan masterfully conveys the subtext in a stirring performance highlighting Henry’s anxiety and evasive conversation tactics to his personal life with his partner currently diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. The tick of the hands unsteadily looking for somewhere to rest, as well as the slightly feigned expressions that flash every once in a while across his face, Guinan hones in on the uneasiness of Henry’s psyche, while flipping characteristically to Rembrandt who struggles and projects quite abrasively in regards to his own family drama. Relationships are the cornerstone of this piece. Interactions between strangers, lovers, partners, and friends all focus on the abstract concept of love wrapped in the overarching theme of artistic expression. “Art allows us to unravel the mysteries of being,” says Hallie Gordon, an Artistic Producer at Steppenwolf and the Artistic Director for Steppenwolf for Young Adults. By looking at these relationships, the audience is invited to question larger and deeper themes, such as death and love.
Nationally renowned Regina Garcia visually represents the idea of the artist through the scale and detail of their set design. In an almost completely symmetrical (but purposefully not quite), Garcia hones in on the parallels of the past with the present. The set from above seems to be plotted out as a full upstage, three room mid-stage, and full downstage. These layers together create the first scenes solid downstage foreground of the museum with stark walls, minimalist design and empty golden frames lit around the inner edges with LED lights. Each scene transitions beautifully into one another, as walls are stripped away revealing separate rooms across time and revealing the intimacies of the occupant’s personal space. The mirroring of Rembrandt’s warm toned studio and Henry’s dark blue study is executed with precision. The opposing complimentary toned rooms are both lined with shelves filled with books and busts, as well as the same Asian pot and number of candles in the room. These small focus points suggest taking the concept of a museum and scaling it down into the intimacy of one’s own personal home. These types of detail even stems down from the set and onto skin as costume and wig design for Ty Olwin’s portrayal of the street artist named Dodger. Olwin, a graduate of the School at Steppenwolf in 2012 with recent appearances in Hir and The Burials, sports tattoos on their bicep and forearms along with a mohawk. All of Dodger’s tattoos seem to be additional for this performance. While the black silhouetted mountain scape and birds are very well done, I particularly enjoyed the moment on the right forearm a popular alt style of rings in RGB. Red, Green and Blue (RGB) are the three additive primary colors for artists spanning across a multitude of mediums. This alternative stylized character against the backdrop of crisp white walls highlights the variety of personalities coming together in this museum.
Not only are they physical spaces telling the story, but color and light play a huge role in understanding the emotional drive of this work. Just as Rembrandt only uses particular colors to highlight skin tones and make portraits pop, Ann G. Wrightson visually illustrates grief thematically through her lighting design by playing on the forbidden colors that Rembrandt refuses to use. This is a great example of the text and the vision working simultaneously together towards emotional pull for the audience. The backlit doorways where characters passing by create small moments of story within the frames. Down to the subtle change from full white museum florescent type lighting to a softer tones and subtle marbled light streaks splashed against the darkening museum walls act as a metaphor for a lack of judgement or moreso a cracked psyche. Wrightson has designed for the Broadway production of Souvenir and is a tony nominee for Tony Award-winning August: Osage County, which she designed for Broadway, London, Sydney and the National Tour. When designing for an abstract work in any medium, the message becomes much more powerful and provoking when it is not heavy handed. Wrightson exemplifies this subtleness by beautifully guiding the eye's journey through this piece through smooth transitions and stylized choices.
The Rembrandt was commissioned and produced (the titled The Guard) by the Ford’s Theatre as part of the Women’s Voices Festival and was awarded the Stavis Award for Playwriting. This is no surprise as the overall structure and syntax of this play is exceptional. In any good piece of written word, the structure is key in not only conveying your message clearly, but also engaging your reader throughout. The playwright starts strong with a break from her main character daydreaming in an abstract dimension into the present. The playwright then continues to create a dynamic dialogue between two characters and reveals key traits and background information all within the first few minutes of the performance. Then, the structure is broken down into three divisions of time: present, past, and the abstract past. The present and past deals with the interactions between characters on stage, yet the abstract past breaks the fourth wall in an soliloquy on the concepts of which the play revolves. What is the purpose of art? Will my art matter? Will I be remembered? In this soliloquy given by Homer, played by the incredibly talented Tony award winner John Mahoney, the deeper reflective questions of the play are directly asked to the audience. Now the basic structure is formed, Dickey chooses to build upon her layering themes with the clever use of recurring words. Chicken, pot, baker, death and love all are timeless concepts that have their each dual meaning of the reality and of the subtext. These multi-faceted themes of art and relationships are linked together by these words that sneak themselves into the narrative and create a thread between time periods. Truly a performance for any aspiring playwright to take a note from on good structure for very theoretical ideas and how to translate them onto the stage. A wonderful production filled with a heartwarming message on what art is. The definition of art provokes numerous art theories as to its purpose and resolute definition, but regardless of what those theories say it is clear that art is not dead nor removed just because it hangs on walls or behind glass. The concept of art, mainly the physical kind, represents and expresses emotion and at it's core - love. An abstract concept translated into the physical realm by humans. This performance is so enriching because it turns the mirror of art back upon itself and unto the creator. Humans create the art and in turn are the living art. Bravo!
The Rembrandt is playing at Steppenwolf Theatre now through November 5th, 2017. For more information or to purchase tickets, please visit steppenwolf.org or call the box office at 312-335-1650. Student discounts, various memberships and accessible performances are also available on the Steppenwolf website.
Mary Crylen is a photographer and writer based in Chicago. She is an alum of Southern Illinois University of Carbondale with a B.A. in English and a B.A. in Photography. She possesses a sincere passion for the arts and believes zeal shows through work. Follow her on Twitter!