By: Karen Isaacs - May 12, 2023
Rembrandt, the play at TheaterWorks Hartford through Sunday, May 14, is part meditation on art and part a very human exploration of love, dying and grieving.
It is a play with great potential, yet during much of it, I was trying to figure out why playwright Jessica Dickey made the choices that she did. She wants to say many things about art, life, love, and death, but perhaps it is too much for one 90-minute play.
The setup is simple. Henry (Michael Chenevert) is a security guard at a museum, presumably the Metropolitan Museum. He truly loves the art and is very knowledgeable about the works. But he seems almost nonchalant that his partner Simon, a poet, is dying. He works with another guard, Jonny, a retired law enforcement officer; Jonny carries a gun. Henry tries to explain the difference between the two types of guards to both Madeline, a copyist, and a newly hired guard, Dodger. While Jonny isn’t really interested in the works, Henry studies them and thinks about the meanings and the techniques. As he says, “Your eye continues to find something new, something you didn’t see before”…. “It’s not the art, it’s you.”
The first part of the play takes place in a gallery filled with Rembrandts, including the famed “Aristotle with Bust of Homer.” When Henry leaves for a few minutes, Dodger, who calls himself a street artist, tries to convince Madeline to touch the painting. She is horrified at the idea and refuses, yet when Henry returns, Dodger convinces Henry and her to do it. It is inexplicable why with Henry’s reverence for the art he succumbs. Where are the security alarms, cameras, and motion sensors near the painting? Why would Henry do it?
It seems unnoticed except that they are transported to Amsterdam with Henry becoming Rembrandt, Madeline his wife Henny and Dodger his son, Titus. The scene plays like a debate between father and son about money – Rembrandt spends profligately forcing him to accept commissions he doesn’t really want to do. His son urges economy. The commission he doesn’t want is one from an Italian merchant for a painting of a philosopher. You can see where this is going.
Then Homer enters to mediate on mortality and death.
Finally, we are catapulted back to the present and the sick room of Simon, who is nearing the end. The play ends with his death.
It’s a fine cast well directed by Maria Mileaf. The transitions from locations flow smoothly. The day I saw it, Michael Bryan French had taken over the role of Homer/Simon due to the illness of the original actor. He did a fine job, particularly since he had only a few days of work on the role.
Usually, when an author has an actor play two roles, they are connected in some way. In this case, it seems tenuous at best: in one way, each becomes the opposite of the other character. It is clearest with Dodger who views rules as unnecessary and meant to be broken; Titus preaches prudence and planning.
Michael Chenevert does an exceptional job as the constrained Henry; as the more flamboyant Rembrandt, he is less convincing. Brandon Espinoza does what he can with two small, ill-developed roles: that of the guard Johnny and in the last scene as Martin, Simon’s caregiver. Henny is the more developed of the two roles (the other being Madeline) played by Amber Reauchean Williams. Ephraim Birney really captures Dodger’s rebellious attitude and his delight in instigating things and shocking others.
The set by Neil Patel is terrific. It looks absolutely like a gallery in an art museum, with paintings on the walls, some sculptures and high ceilings. Katherine Roth creates both the modern and the 17th-century costumes.
Rembrandt is a play whose ambitions exceed its ability to convey them. It will capture you at the moment, except perhaps for Homer’s soliloquy which at times was a philosophy lecture, but you won’t necessarily think about it after you leave the theater.
For tickets and information, visit TWHartford.org.
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