Sunday, July 27, 2008

A Brush with Georgia O'Keeffe

The title of this play would seem to indicate a brief encounter. And compared to the 98 years she lived, 2 hours is relatively short. Why then did the time just seem to drag by?

It can't be because of the subject. By anyone's standard, Georgia O'Keeffe lived an amazing life—just exploring her relationship with Alfred Stieglitz could easily fill an evening. If only the playwright, Natalie Mosco, had tried to create some context for O'Keeffe's life; instead, we're treated to very earnest "here's what happened to me in pretty much the order that it happened" direct address storytelling by Mosco as O'Keeffe. There are a few scenes with other characters (all played by Virginia Roncetti and David Lloyd Walters) that Mosco has scattered through the play, and snippets from letters, reviews and other writings that are used to illustrate points in O'Keeffe's story. But for the most part, it's a one-woman show that feels like an unimpressive Theater for Young Audiences production.

For instance, we find out during the play that O'Keeffe was, in her youth, briefly struck blind when she contracted the measles. Later, near the end of the play, we learn that a macular degeneration left her incapable of painting in her last years. Who could ask for a better set of bookends for the story of one of the most important painters of the 20th century? Instead, they are relegated to the list of "Sad, Isn't It?" moments, along with all the "Because She was a Brilliant Artist" moments and the "Sucks Being a Woman in a Man's World" moments that make up this play.

I was being glib with the "woman in a man's world" remark but, actually, if I was going to write a play about O'Keeffe, that would be my focus. She was independent almost from the time she left her parents home at age 18... in 1905! Within the next 10 years, she lived in Chicago, New York (several times), Texas (twice), Virginia and South Carolina—all as a single woman, making her way in the world, beginning a career in art. By taking the overview approach to O'Keeffe's life, Brush alludes to but never actually allows us to see how monumental (and, in many ways, improbable) an achievement her success in art was, especially in the early decades of the 20th century.

Of the mechanics of the production, I will say that I was interested in Marilys Ernst's video projections—animations of O'Keeffe's paintings, Stieglitz's photos and "Who are the Other Two Actors Playing Now?" illustrations—although I wish that they might have found a way for the square projections to better fill the flower-shaped (of course) projection surface. Robert Kalfin's direction was uninspired—the pace of the show was remarkably regular and monotonous, which underscored the weaknesses in the script. While Walters, as Stieglitz and every other man, was adequate to the task, Roncetti gave my favorite performance of the evening: the different minor characters she creates are by far the most interesting on this stage.

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