Friday, April 28, 2006

"Woman Before a Glass" - Peggy Guggenheim

Staged at TheaterWorks in Hartford and running through May 21, "Woman Before a Glass" is illuminating -- after its first twenty minutes or so. The mid-1960s piece captures art collector Peggy Guggenheim who, at the outset, is not the most appealing of individuals.

Deft, versatile actress Glynis Bell appears in stained beige dress during the first of four portions of Lanie Robertson's play. As the self-inflated socialite, Bell is concerned with the garments she carries, with her bra which is giving her trouble. While it's important to pay attention during the first moments, who really cares?

But, "Woman" evolves into a compelling, moving work. Thanks, then, to Jeff Cowie's splendid set design, Matthew Richards' varied lighting, and Alejo Vietti and Elizabeth Flauto's wardrobe changes. Steve Campo knows the material and strikes the appropriate balance between direction and release of the actor to imagine and create.

Really, though, this is a splendid bit of acting by Bell who is out there by herself for ninety-five minutes.

The play intrigues as Peggy imagines her daughter, the lovely Pegeen (an artist) bathing behind a wall. Eventually, Peggy thinks of her father, who perished when the Titanic went down. Finally, Peggy receives word that her daughter is no longer, having (evidently) committed suicide.

The musings about art, the reference to the "bad" uncle, Solomon Guggenheim, the allusions to Picasso, Dali, Ernst, Miro and so forth.....well, someone must be interested in this business.

"Woman Before a Glass" rivets, though, when Bell, sitting inside not merely Guggenheim's clothing but her skin, as well, reflects upon men in her life: the one she loved; her father....and others.

That's when the charade drops and she is no longer able to sustain a facade. Bell is an actress who is at home taking words to an audience. Her comfort zone, because she has totally mastered this script, allows her to become her character. That, in itself, is enviable. It's impossible to define but so clearly identifiable.

So, Guggenheim's dissatisfaction with the shape of her nose is forgivable. A case could be made that the beginning (what seemed to me extraneous) section of exposition is necessary to set up poignant situations and latter tension. Let's argue about that.

Peggy Guggenheim was a complex, engaging woman. Glynis Bell brings that home.

Commentary: Critics are people, too. Sometimes, those writing about plays are: tired, preoccupied, wishing they were elsewhere, not especially favorably disposed towards the subject matter......As my good friend Michael Blowen, former film critic for the Boston Globe, once said, "We're nothing but window dressing." Yet, these are power positions; we all realize reviews help make/break the arts.

Are critics open to dialogue? I emailed Ben Brantley, of NYT, a long while ago, mentioning that I had a take on August Wilson's "Radio Golf" (final play) which varied from Ben's. Never did receive a response.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur

This is not Tennessee Williams' finest play. One might guess that the ninety minute piece, continuing at Hartford Stage through May 7, was composed early during the poetic playwright's career. Wrong. He wrote the script during the late 1970s, even if the action dates back to 1935 in St. Louis. With classic characterizations, this, according to logic, would demonstrate a young writer's gleaming potential. Not so: he penned the play towards the end of his time.

It is Dotty (Annalee Jeffries, always a Hartford Stage T. Williams splendid performer) who hopes that T. Ralph Ellis will call her. You might guess, as of this very moment, that she suffers disappointment. That is the play's climax. Unfortunately, there isn't a whole lot of creative tension, dramatic impact.....until that point.

Dotty does situps, pelvic thrusts while Bodey (Carlin Glynn) fries up some chicken in anticipation of the picnic to Creve Coeur.

Helena (Joan van Ark), the sharp-featured, caustic teaching colleague of Dotty's at Blewett, is jealous of the rooms inhabited by Dotty and Bodey.

Actress Jayne Taini plays Sophie who erupts in German, from time to time, and is anything but a sympathetic character.

Michael Wilson, whose interpretations of Tennessee Williams are uniformly superb, hasn't a great deal with which to work -- in terms of scripting. Instead, the director wisely turns his attention to repartee among the foursome. Williams paints each of these women with distinctive strokes and costumer David C. Woolard outfits them with perfect period fashion get-ups.

Exquisite timing is essential and the combined efforts of the actors in conjunction with Wilson's direction cannot be underestimated. "A Lovely Sunday" features top quality ensemble performance.

That said, the production leaves anyone expecting either sublime ("Glass Menagerie") or potent ("Streetcar," "Cat") Williams wishing for more. This is a short play but it does not zip along. The play, itself, does not measure up to this sterling master's scintillating work.