All the drama behind the art
by Richard Dodds
There was to be no happy ending for artist Rudolf Bauer, at least not in his lifetime, but the brief moment of spiritual renewal that playwright Lauren Gunderson provides is a fantasy that feels just right. In Bauer, Gunderson creates dramatic tensions from situations built for that effect, but also from ideas that don't suggest ready dramatization. Presented in director Bill English's exquisite production at San Francisco Playhouse, this world premiere from the prolific Bay Area playwright is a swirl of hurts, hopes, regrets, love, hate, and forgiveness that finds an order that Bauer himself sought for his art.
It's not important to know the background of Bauer's complicated and prematurely stunted career as a pioneering abstract artist, for Gunderson creatively weaves this history through the more immediate dramatic confrontations of the play while we see visual examples of Bauer's stylistic evolution in the increasingly imaginative large-format projects designed by Micah J. Stieglitz.
The 95-minute play takes place in a large room (designed by English) holding a few blank canvases but that is otherwise blank itself. This was the studio where Bauer once painted, and where he insists a meeting with the woman who is his long-estranged lover, patron, savior, and perhaps, betrayer, takes place. Bauer's wife would much rather entertain in a more fashionable room in the house, but the artist wants the dreaded guest to see this studio that reflects the creative death he blames on her.
That guest is Hilla Rebay, who championed Bauer's work in their native Germany, rescued Bauer from Nazi imprisonment through bribery, and convinced Solomon R. Guggenheim that Bauer should be a major part of the artworks he was assembling for the museum that bears his name.
But despite the vastness of this seeming largesse, Bauer unwittingly signed a contract vetted by Rebay that not only gave Guggenheim more than 100 of his completed works but also required that all future works go to the foundation in exchange for a stipend and a house in New Jersey. His work was now legally considered "output," as he bitterly notes in the play, and this has killed his creative drive. Bauer's wife Louise hopes that Rebay's visit will somehow pull her ailing husband from his voided life, but if this is to happen, scarred-over wounds must first be reopened.
As Bauer, Ronald Guttman is superb as he creates a character of external resignation masking internal rages. Susi Damilano is an exemplar of loving patience as Bauer's wife, and she helps ground the play at its start and finish. But the middle round goes to Stacy Ross, who makes a grand entrance in her fashionable 1950s attire (costumes by Abra Berman) and proceeds to variously attack, insult, and placate her hosts in a powerful performance that includes a slow burn of unforgettable ferocity.
Sound designer Theodore J.H. Hulsker and lighting designer Jordan Puckett also need to be acknowledged for their contributions to this artistic endeavor about two-dimensional art that furrows deep into three-dimensional human flesh. Bauer is a highlight of this theatrical season, as it would be of any season.
Bauer will run through April 19 at San Francisco Playhouse. Tickets are $30-$100. Call 677-9596 or go to www.sfplayhouse.com.