Equity Members' Projects were busting out all over this
June, as talented local professionals faced the end of another season where
not only was most theatre work that paid a living wage trucked in from
outside Boston, but even local Equity houses tend to audition New Yorkers
exclusively. I suppose that in a city where there was more
work for local Members, a Project might be a kind of extended audition
to show producers what the originators can do. But in Boston, Projects
seem to exist simply to give their actors an opportunity to measure themselves
against great roles that might never otherwise come their way. This art
for art's sake has resulted in some very impressive performances, which,
because of the productions' limited runs and the budget constraints built
in to the Members' Project Code, are seen mostly by other actors.
Word of mouth turns out colleagues and friends to witness the performers
strutting their stuff, and to commiserate at intermission: what a shame
that such talent goes unemployed. And they are right. It is
a shame. These were performances worthy of being set on a real
stage in a full size theatre, and appreciated by wider audience.
David Hare's "The Bay at Nice" is set in the shabby splendor of a museum gallery in Leningrad in 1956. June Lewin plays Valentina Nrovka, who has been summoned to the museum to authenticate a questionable Matisse that the museum has recently acquired. Valentina isn't a technician -- her opinion is valuable because she knew Henri Matisse, his work and his work habits, very well. She went to Paris before the First World War as a talented teen aged painter, studied with Matisse and slept with whoever pleased her, until, pregnant and ready to give up her Bohemian exile for a life with roots and social significance, she came home to post revolutionary Russia to raise her daughter, Sophia (Pamela Haig). Neither Valentina nor her daughter flourished under the rule of Communism and of the propagandistic sort of art, Socialist Realism, the Party favors. Still, that daughter, now in her mid thirties, somehow married a man who has turned out to be a very successful Party bureaucrat. As a bureaucrat's wife, Sophia has a job teaching in the state school, and consequently she and her children have had comforts and privileges far beyond those available to an ordinary citizen. She has been able to paint, even if only as an amateur. Now Sophia is about to throw all that away. She wants to divorce her husband and marry a man who loves her -- a man old enough to be the father she never had. Sophia wants her mother's help, and her mother's blessing. But neither the wild young painter Valentina had been in Paris, nor the proud duty bound woman Valentina has become under a bleak and oppressive regime, can approve what Sophia intends to do. What about her work? Her children?
For this Project the legendary Ted Kasanoff, retired now from Brandeis University where he trained successive generations of young actors, served both as director and cast member: playing the supporting role of Peter Linitsky, Sophia's working class suitor. Fans of "Law and Order" would recognize the face of one of the series' feisty judges, but detect little similarity between that brilliant autocrat on TV and the humble character Kasanoff plays in "Nice". Peter Linitsky is a simple man in a strange environment facing a formidable woman who has many reasons to oppose him, yet he is perfectly at home with who he is and what he wants. Robert Bonotto rounds out the cast in the role of an assistant curator who hopes to win promotion by Valentina's authentication of the Matisse. Bonotto's nervous self revelations make visible what all of them feel: Valentina, an aging woman with no career or credential, has the power to authenticate, to pass judgment on, them all -- including herself--, because of what she learned from watching and listening to Matisse.
This is a play in which all the characters are conscious of having been penned in and turned in to "types", self limited by the knowledge of what they represent to others. They are also representative types in author Hare's on-going debate with himself and the audience about art and social/familial obligation. What makes Hare's plays so satisfying for actors, however, is the way his dialogue encourages his characters to be intensely conscious of one another, to really listen. Although they are in conflict as "types" with "views", yet at any moment they might, just might, recognize and change each other. This quality is beautifully conveyed by the cast's ensemble work, although each actor contributes a different peculiar excellence. Bonotto excels at communicating the curator's rapid shifts in self perception, mainly through wrist and shoulder and eyebrow. Kasanoff has to a superlative degree the ability to simply be present as Peter Linitsky in a way that disarms the defenses of those around him, steadying them and bringing them to his level. Haig has a marvelously rich voice, that traces every shade of the emotions Sophia allows herself to feel and hints of depths yet unplumbed. Lewin's eyes covey thought, past and present; testifying that what might appear to be caprice or cruelty in Valentina is the byproduct of a passionate and unflinching intelligence fully engaged.
The Beau Jest Moving Theatre space in The Piano Factory is a simple brick box. Jeff Gardiner's set and lighting acknowledged the natural textures and tones of the room and added a few well chosen elements to say "Russia" and "aesthetic order", overlaid by a few details of "neglect" and "discomfort". The "Bay at Nice" of the title, the subject of the questionable Matisse painting that is present and described but never revealed, takes on a physicality that contrasts with the room we see. What would that room be like if the Matisse were unveiled there? What would the room and the city and the country and the world have to be like for the painter himself, or any artist remotely like him, to be able to exist in it and do his work? How is what these actors are doing on stage, and what designer Gardiner has done with the set, like what that painter does at his easel?