Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit becwillett.com.
Pictured: John Mahoney and Francis Guinan. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
By Bec Willett
Steppenwolf’s THE REMBRANDT starts with potential. The crown of room 39 in a major art museum is Rembrandt’s painting “Aristotle with a Bust of Homer.” Here, gay museum guard/historian/painter Henry (Francis Guinan) is avoiding his dying partner through checklists and facts. Joined by oafish security guard Jonny (Gabriel Ruiz), street artist Dodger (Ty Olwin), and Latina painter Madeline (Karen Rodriguez) a question arises: are any of them worthy of touching this piece of art? It’s an exciting moment of connection between different people, the magic highlighted expertly by Ann G. Wrightson’s lighting. But rather than further exploring these diverse characters and perspectives, Jessica Dickey’s play suddenly flits into a Renaissance focusing on Rembrandt (the person) and then a scene-length monologue by Homer (John Mahoney) in Ancient Greece, the actors switching characters accordingly and the audience’s journey with them starting over.
Despite the superficiality of character development available in the script, the actors elevate them beyond pedestrian, switching between convincing portraits with dexterity. When at the end they are given a rare opportunity for relationship depth, Guinan and Mahoney take it and run with it. They are no longer proxies for dead men regurgitating already mainstream viewpoints, but men in the present: Henry and Simon. They are a couple – just as any couple – sharing and grieving and bickering. “Grief is a profound sense of failure,” mutters Henry over pudding, in what is undoubtedly the most moving moment of the play.
This is also not the only time we’re struck with the beauty of the language in this play. Even with the script’s structural and ideological flaws, this text offers many poetic insights into the human condition. At times, Hallie Gordon’s realist direction reflects this poetry in some poignant stage pictures, but often the magic of the text is left in the spoken words. The scenic design is similarly realistic, and while the machinations are clever, its literalness feels like an attempt to disguise a problematic script.
THE REMBRANDT’s goal of humanizing historic figures of the past by making it easier for us to see the artist in ourselves may be a noble one but when the only historical characters we see and hear from are two, dead, white men, the experience for those who aren’t can only be limited.
THE REMBRANDT runs through November 5th. For more information visit steppenwolf.org.