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|May 7-13, 2009
Portrait of an artist
Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company presents the world
premiere of Morisot Reclining
by Jim Lillie
Their tale nearly told, Impressionist painter Edgar Degas turns to his colleague and fellow narrator Mary Cassatt, nods toward the audience and says, “Let them think what they want. We know the truth.” When an artist speaks so convincingly, especially of that great god Truth, it’s tempting to take him at his word, to tell ourselves that the story we’ve just witnessed, Morisot Reclining, has given us all we need.
If only that were true.
William C. Kovacsik’s drama, which is being given its world premiere by the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company, examines the relationship between Impressionist great Edouard Manet and his muse and fellow painter, Berthe Morisot. Intended neither as docudrama nor fiction, the play instead uses a series of imagined scenes interspersed with narrated commentary, combined with timely projections of various paintings, to explore the underlying feelings that might have existed among the four celebrated artists.
Decently directed by Rebecca Remaly and capably acted by a cast of five, the 110-minute production appears to be much like its subject — sometimes light, sometimes dark — even as it becomes apparent that the lives of artists, even famous artists, are like anyone else’s, just more so.
It’s an enjoyable and entertaining story that allows us to listen, learn and wonder about the nature of artistic inspiration, romantic love and betrayal, both professional and personal. Just when the show seems to lag a bit, Kovacsik gets things moving again with an off-hand line or one of many on-target, casual observations about the artist’s life. And a few episodes merge information with inspiration, including those that theorize how a particular interchange between master and muse might have found expression in a painting or two.
Matthew Mueller makes the most of narrator Degas’ dry sense of humor and shameless conceit, while also infusing him with a passion and conviction that the script could use more of elsewhere. Mueller also delights when playing several minor characters, including the underdeveloped character of Manet’s bother, Eugene, who ended up marrying Morisot. Though their relationship isn’t terribly fleshed out here (we never learn of their daughter, for instance, who became the subject of many of Morisot’s 800-plus paintings), it nonetheless shows greater dramatic potential than that of Morisot and the more famous Manet brother, Edouard. Yes, Morisot and Eugene are married. But it’s Morisot’s obsession with the more famous Edouard that should be more the play’s focus. As Cassatt, Lindsey Pierce matches wits with Mueller, narrator-wise, and rises to the occasion with her rendering of several cameo roles. And Ashley Simpson plays the part of the Young Model, who poses nude for one of Manet’s more popular works, with admirable dignity and ease.
As Morisot, Karen Slack has the look and the emotional substance to be any painter’s muse. She’s appealing, inside and out, and gives this portrait her best shot. So does Stephen Weitz, whose approach to the role of Edouard, while initially too understated, eventually complements Slack’s in terms of depth and substance. True, their first meeting — between the “world’s greatest living painter” and his worshipful admirer — could use more urgency rather than feeling like a first meeting of two formerly unacquainted cubicle dwellers. Other than that, though, Slack and Weitz can’t be expected to plumb what simply isn’t there.
It isn’t so much that we need absolute answers to certain questions — or new ones to those that seem to have settled answers, like whether the relationship was consummated. But since Kovacsik has taken the trouble, and lovingly so, to peel back the topmost layers of both people, and of artists in general, it seems a shame that he doesn’t delve into their innermost regions of thought and feeling. Especially with a willing and, as at last Saturday’s performance, packed house ready to follow. As it is, most of what he reveals can be surmised by thoughtfully reflecting on popular knowledge and the paintings themselves. The result is a feeling of being at a nicely staged dinner party and having been handed our coats and politely thanked for coming — just as the deeper conversation was beginning.
Degas and Cassatt can afford to rest easy with their knowledge of the truth; taking the script as gospel, they’ve presumably had their supernatural chance to clear up any misunderstandings. Mere mortals, on the other hand, would be better served by a party that takes flight when the serious stuff begins.
On the Bill:
Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company performs Morisot Reclining through May 9 at The Dairy Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder. 303-444-7328, www.boulderensembletheatre.org.
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