Rembrandtís Gift by Tina Howe. Directed by Eric Peterson.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Gary Allan Poe, Paula Mann, J. C. Hoyt in a rehearsal scene; photo: Robert Sugarman
"All right, I worship the ground it dangles over."
Polly Shaw, a photographic artist and her husband, retired (or is one ever retired) actor Walter Paradise are in hiding from their avaricious landlord who wants to evict them from their Mercer Street loft in lower Manhattan. Walter's prostate keeps waking him up and Polly's nervous anxiety just keeps her awake. When she complains about his nightly non-stop parade to the bathroom he batters his prostate-ill in her face. To placate him, as she often does in this play, she tells him she worships the ground his prostate walks on to which he responds that this particular gland doesnít have feet. She counters with the line above.
Thatís the level of comedy in the writing of this 2002 play now having its third production - ever - at the Oldcastle Theatre Companyís Bennington Arts Center stage. Thatís not the level of the play, however. That is something grander.
Set in a top floor loft (you tell me - this set by Kenneth Mooney doesnít look like any New York loft Iíve ever been in) that has been stuffed full of costumes, props, photographs, artworks and other things (although not to the level I anticipated from the plot-point setup) by Walter whoís lack of career has warped his sense of values and reality, the play deals with those levels of reality suffered by artists who are losing their grip on their world. Like Howeís earlier masterwork, "Painting Churches" the play deals with loss and the ways in which artists deal with that concept of letting go of the security blankets they have accumulated.
The slightly older Walter has a fear of his very own door locks which he no longer understands. He goes out, but he really has no reason to go out. Polly, somewhat younger, has lost her art as well, unable to take pictures of anything for nothing truly interests her. Nothing, that is, except a poster for a showing of Rembrandtís paintings, his self-portraits, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And there begins the story.
J. C. Hoyt plays Walter with an elder statesman elegance and an almost W. C. Fields-like panache. He vacillates between a curious competence and a vulgar insolence. His reactions are those of the old man, but his rationale is often that of a younger man, one in control of his peripheral environment. It is clear he loves Polly; it is unclear to him just why. Hoytís out of rhythm changes of mind are perfectly played and it is fun to watch him bounce around the set being one sort of man and then another. When he is playing the romantic lover he is adorable and when he is the hassled, or hassling, madman he is strangleable. Itís a terrific performance of a multi-faceted, difficult role.
Paula Mann is his counterpart, Polly. Mann maintains a steadier level of control as she deals with her partnerís unanticipated changes. Howe has manifested the menopausal variables into Walter and left Mannís Polly to deal with the quirks and the actress here handles all of that with a good deal of ease and naturalness. Even in her occasional frustrations she is a woman who can handle anything Walter can throw at her. What she cannot handle is the arrival of her artistic hero.
Rembrandt van Rijn is played by Gary Allan Poe. If thereís a weak point in the play it is Poeís handling of Rembrandtís confusion about being brought forward nearly five hundred years in time. Before long he is wearing a tee-shirt with his own self-portrait emblazoned on it and not even caring to ask about the techniques of image transfer. His Rembrandt is the perfect assimilator which may not be the best choice for a comedy. His elderly romanticism is nicely presented, however, and the shade of a painter in the final scene is very decently done.
This playís deeper meaning, that need for self-expression to continue even the eye of adversity, is kept on hold by the playwright and the director until very near to the end of the show. Peterson has made some choices here that add a touch of suspense to the question of Polly and her talent. She has an epiphany when she thinks that the end is near, that she will be evicted. She has supported both of the men in her life as best she can and when she takes charge of her own space, the directorís understanding of the play becomes terrifically obvious.
A fencing match has been nicely staged by Alan Fourtney and choreographed by Erika Lawlor Schmidt. It is brief but leaves an impression.
Oldcastle is presenting some of the most intriguing plays of the summer season in this region and this is a good start with an honest if obscure piece of playwriting. A good company does what it can and even if the setting seems more upper west side than downtown, even if the clutter seems more methodical and less health threatening, even if the performances seem more controlled than over the top, this does offer an intriguing and often romantic play to a public that hasnít really seen its like before.
Rembrandtís Gift plays at the Bennington Center for the Arts on Vt. Route 9 west of Historic Bennington. For information or tickets contact the company through the box office at 802-447-1267 or find them on line at www.oldcastletheatreco.org.