Tuesday, September 9, 2014

60. Review of BAUER (September 4, 2014)



Imagine you’re an internationally famous German abstract artist imprisoned by Hitler because your art is considered “degenerate.” Through the intercession of an artist-curator friend named Hilla Rebay, the American copper magnate and art collector, Solomon Guggenheim, pays enough money in 1938 to secure your release, enabling you to emigrate to the United States in 1939, where Guggenheim ensconces you in a gorgeous seashore mansion in the exclusive New Jersey town of Deal, buys you a spectacular Duesenberg to tool around in, and sets up a fund that will take care, via monthly stipends, of all your financial needs for life. All you have to do is sign a contract stating that all your work henceforth belongs to Guggenheim, who will open his new Museum of Non-Objective Art with your paintings, of which he has a large collection, displayed prominently along with the top avant-gardists of the day, such as Kandinsky, Chagall, Klee, and Picasso. However, not long after signing your name you come to believe that you’ve misunderstood the contractual stipulations and bound yourself to a Faustian bargain in which you see yourself as little more than an indentured servant. You thereupon rebel by choosing never to paint again. You die in 1953, and when Frank Lloyd Wright’s new version of the museum, now called the Guggenheim Museum, opens six years later, your work is relegated to a basement storeroom and your name gradually forgotten except by art historians.
This, in brief, is what happened to Rudolf Bauer, about whom an excellent recent documentary called “Betrayal: The Life and Art of Rudolf Bauer” was produced in 2005 (and recently re-aired on PBS); it was the inspiration for playwright Lauren Gunderson to be commissioned by the San Francisco Playhouse (in association with the Weinstein Gallery) to dramatize the story. BAUER, now showing in Theater A at 59E59 Theaters, under the direction of Bill English, who staged the San Francisco production and also designed its set, is an often tense—even melodramatic—
exploration of the ethical and personal issues involved in Bauer’s behavior. It presents most of the known biographical facts within an imagined confrontation among Bauer (Sherman Howard), his wife, Louise (Susi Damilano), and the artist-curator, Hilla Rebay (Stacy Ross), Bauer’s former lover, whose enthusiastic support of Bauer was largely responsible for Guggenheim’s extensive patronage. There never was a meeting of these three people, but, the possibilities of what might have happened had there been one, are rather well realized by Ms. Gunderson. Schiller did the same thing with Mary Stuart and Queen Elizabeth in MARY STUART.
Sherman Howard. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
All of the action, which takes place on an afternoon in 1953, some months before the 62-year-old Bauer’s death of lung cancer, is set in the Deal mansion’s disused, dusty, white-walled, coffered-ceilinged, tall-windowed studio, beautifully lit by Mary Louise Geiger. Louise, an Austrian who had been hired by Rebay to serve as Bauer’s housekeeper, and who eventually married him, has deviously, but with good intentions, arranged to have Hilla, from whom Bauer has been estranged for a decade, come to the mansion; she hopes they can be reconciled. Bauer, intensely angry at Hilla for what he believes to have been her machinations in getting him to sign the contract, refuses to meet Hilla in the home’s gracious drawing room, insisting they do so in this nearly empty space, redolent of his abandoned career; the seating here is confined to a shabby armchair, a board set on boxes, and the like. Louise, an attractive 50-year-old woman in a pale violet dress, sincerely wishes to make the meeting a success, even though she knows Hilla was once her husband’s lover. Hilla arrives wearing a chic red dress with a wide-brimmed black hat; her hats were a personal trademark, although this one looks nothing like the rather odd ones worn by her in vintage photos and film clips. (The nicely balanced period costumes are designed by Abra Berman.) Hilla wears her aristocratic background almost like another part of her ensemble, treating the eternally patient Louise with crushing contempt, as if she were still Bauer’s maid. (Hilla had written an essay in which she called Louise a prostitute, resulting in a libel suit brought by the Bauers.) Hilla, not realizing at first why she is there, has come with the mission of convincing Bauer to paint again, and goes after him with relentless determination, but Bauer resists with all his power, believing that to do so would mean abandoning his integrity.
Sherman Howard, Stacy Ross, Susi Damilano Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The ethical dimensions of the dilemma are turned this way and that, as Bauer and Hilla engage in a furious blame-game fight, replete with sniping banter, that introduces enough expository background to let us know how things have come to such a pass. Forgiveness becomes a major theme, but who is to be forgiven, and for what? Ms. Gunderson can be excused, in the interests of dramatic necessity, for some of the liberties she’s forced to introduce. It’s unlikely, for example, that it was directly from Hilla that Bauer learned that, after his patron’s death in 1949, Guggenheim’s nephew and successor decreed that the artist's work would be kept in storage and that Hilla had been fired as curator of the Guggenheim collection, thereby losing her ability to fight for him. Still, having her bring all of this information into their meeting definitely deepens the drama and makes Bauer’s desperation more devastating. Also, Hilla’s plan to have Bauer paint again never really clarifies how his doing so publicly could overcome his contractual restrictions; on the other hand, the play’s fantastical conclusion (about which, more below) offers at least a satisfactory imaginary resolution.
Each character is sharply drawn and expertly performed, including the use of German accents (with choice German phrases thrown in). Mr. Howard’s Bauer, a dapper, silver haired and mustached picture of elegance, in blue blazer and ascot, has a proud, imperious presence. He’s clearly benefitted from his financial comforts, despite his complaints that he hasn’t enough money for all his needs. Bauer comes across as impetuous, petulant, and angry, but always with the dignity and stature befitting his position. Mr. Howard is new to the production, but both Ms. Damilano and Ross appeared in the San Francisco staging. Ms. Damilano’s Louise is helpful, self-deprecating, and likeable, while Ms. Ross’s Hilla is convincingly direct and urgent, although the actress has a distracting tendency to charge forward and retreat. She’s also far slimmer than the physically imposing person she plays, who appears quite frequently in the Bauer documentary.

A smattering of Rudolf Bauer’s work is cleverly introduced during the course of the action via several striking projections (created by Micah Stiegletz) that spread across the stage, and, as alluded to earlier, the play concludes with a remarkable display of his artistry in a surprisingly phantasmagoric scene that abandons the play’s hitherto realistic style and boldly pictures the newly liberated artist slashing the air like an orchestra conductor as powerful brush strokes of color and form splash across the studio walls.

Apart from the premise of a meeting that never happened, and some artsy talk that borders on pretentiousness, Ms. Gunderson’s 90-minute intermissionless drama, which is not without some welcome caustic humor, makes effective use of a true story dramatic enough to sustain interest on its own. Still, the play does occasionally seem to wear out the thrust of its central conflict as Hilla and Bauer battle it out, calm down, and take up weapons again in an on-again, off-again tempest that gradually begins to seem stretched. Nevertheless, BAUER is a welcome arrival for those seeking an effective dramatization of a compelling tale with powerful moral implications, and for anyone interested in an introduction to the power of great abstract painting. Bauer’s work has slowly come back into favor since a 1967 exhibition at, ironically, the Guggenheim, which gave it an even more impressive showing in 2005. This play about his life will surely inspire many theatergoers to seek it out. 
Stacy Ross, Sherman Howard, Susi Damilano. Photo: Carol Rosegg.