Rembrandt’s “Self-Portrait,” (dated 1659), wearing a coat with upturned collar and crowned with a beret, looms out like an old friend on the Ford Theatre’s proscenium stage. It’s a reproduction of the original displayed in the permanent collection of Washington’s National Gallery of Art.
In The Guard, playwright Jessica Dickey vividly deals with questions about art and life in her tantalizing, multi-layered theater piece. She challenges us to see gallery art from a fresh perspective, that of its earthly guardians. Dickey is a risk-taker who uses flashes of humor and soaring eloquence to entice us into taking the fine arts seriously.
Why do we go to museums to look at the gems of great genius created centuries ago? Rembrandt’s thoughts are unavailable. If we are seekers of meaning behind the chaos of life, what do we expect to find in pictures? And why are guards hired to stand tirelessly all day to keep us at a distance?
The 1659 “Self-Portrait” is a standout among several others on scenic designer James Kronzer’s revolving set. The luminous face, its penetrating stare, surrounded by dark, makes a profound statement in a limited space. The furrowed brow of a suffering man, still in pain, reminds me that Rembrandt’s tragic personal life was filled with tragedy, pain, loss of infant offspring, and bankruptcy. His oafish middle-class patrons demanded portraits of themselves as philosophers, a trumped-up, high-status image in the 17th century.
The other reproductions on stage, all from world-class museums, contribute to the view of Rembrandt’s innovative, spontaneous style. These paintings are not identified in program notes, so I’ll do it here. In “Titus Reading,” a blond-headed young man, with a lively smile on his face, is reading aloud in an off-guard moment. Titus was the only surviving son from Rembrandt’s marriage to Saskia von Uylenburgh, who died when Titus was nine months old. Next on the blue-gray wall, we catch a glimpse of this first wife, in a red broad-brimmed hat, in the “Portrait of Saskia von Uytenburgh.” Next is “A Woman Bathing in a Stream,” allegedly Hendrickje, (the character Henna, played by Kathryn Tkel on stage), Rembrandt’s housekeeper and common law wife, holding up her skirt to show her submerged legs. Her faint smile betrays her sensory delight in feeling the water.
Sharon Ott directs Dickey’s well-crafted play with impressive, upfront confrontational focus that breaks down walls, so that history flows as one entertaining, continuous stream. She cracks their surfaces, as if we are experiencing the paintings’ inner life beneath the hardened exteriors. Blackouts separate flash-leaps back to the Baroque Dutch Golden Age, the 1600s ,and to 800 B.C., and back to the future again. Some loose ends straggle along the way, but masterpiece performances from Mitchell Hébert as Henry/Rembrandt, and Craig Wallace as Homer/Simon make up for any detours.
Let’s back up to my original fix with Rembrandt. How did this legendary artist do it, endure the agony, make the sacrifice? This play succeeds in making palpable, even manageable, the all-too-real human experience of death. Let’s face it: Life is agonizingly brief and ends with grief over loss. We all go through it.
We first meet Henry, the supreme art connoisseur and veteran guard, sensitively reincarnated, with nuanced acting, by actor Hébert, sitting in the museum dark because “….at night the paintings come alive” and reveal their mysterious secrets. What’s startling about Henry is his harboring of a personal tragic secret. His life-long lover and partner, Simon, magnificently depicted with dignity by Wallace, is wasting away from Stage 4 cancer.
Tim Getman is Jonny, Henry’s foil, the macho security guard. Ever a dynamic actor, Getman plays Jonney with jaunty cool to represent the ordinary guy who does his job, but “doesn’t like looking at walls all day.” Ironically, Jonny is the one who pulls a pistol to prevent any art work from being so much as touched with a “greasy” human finger.
Enter Kathryn Tkel, who double-plays Henna, Rembrandt’s common law wife and Madeline, the copyist, who plunks herself down in front of “Aristotle with a Bust of Homer” (1653). We only see this artistic gem in our mind’s eye, prompted by the art student’s probing stare into space over the audience. The Greek philosopher Aristotle places his hand on the head of a bust of Homer’s head, a symbolic gesture of humility and intellectual awe. Considered one of the great Baroque masterworks, the original is located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, acquired for $2.3 million in 1961, valued at over $100 million today. So what makes this painting so important? And how do the other characters in Dickey’s play react to it?
Madeline, who lost her grandmother, is grieving, like Henry. In addition, she is besieged with a mysterious illness that causes her to stumble and fall, endangering precious statuary. Nevertheless, this art worshipper seems to be a “seeker” who can explain the meaning behind “Aristotle with a Bust of Homer.” More could have been made of these interpretative moments if the play were expanded beyond 90 minutes. (Which I would like to happen.)
Henry tutors Dodger, a cheeky intern, engagingly depicted by Josh Sticklin, explaining that there are three types of people who come to museums: tourists traipse through, uninvolved personally; the white haired ladies, with dutiful, detached husbands, who support historical culture; and the most significant, the “seekers,” who are looking for self-discovery. They seek a philosophical meaning for their own lives. These are the people the guards, who may encounter 4 million visitors annually, must protect the art from.
Outside his museum job, Dodger is a graffiti artist, a “public artist,” he calls himself. He is a rebel who defaces buildings and urges Madeline to get emotionally involved, break down the divide between paint and life, “to touch” Rembrandt’s masterpiece. Artists are the real philosophers. “I’m not mentally ill. I’m an artist,” he says, recalling how he always regretted never asking his father about his reactions to “Aristotle with a Bust of Homer.” But even though Dodger enlists support from Henry to join Madeline in defying authority and touching the painting, breaking rules is shown to have dire results.
Part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival
September 25 – October 18, 2015
511 10th St, NW
Washington, DC 20004
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Tickets: $20 – $62
Most satisfying and unifying in this staging, is the way Kronzer’s settings are color coordinated. Rembrandt’s favorite colors, white, black, red, and ochre (earthy yellow, shaded with brown) are matched with the dramatic action – warm red, for example, becomes the predominant set color inside Rembrandt’s 17th century, plush home in Amsterdam in the 1600s. The interior makes a stunning impact in the break-away, revolving set change. Hébert Mitchell’s quick change from Henry’s modern dress to Rembrandt’s 17th century breeches and cape is magical. (Costumes by Laree Lentz). And actor Sticklin dons a plush doublet to morph into Rembrandt’s son, Titus, who, in a surprising role reversal, nags his father over his extravagant spending habits.
One of the most telling questions raised, however, is why Rembrandt rarely or never uses blue in his art. “It’s the color of divinity, the heavens. We need to see each other,” Rembrandt, the humanist, says. Answers come from other human beings as to why we exist; not from the clergy’s medieval belief in another world beyond.
But what makes The Guard a must are the not-to-be-missed magnificent performances from actors Craig Wallace and Mitchell Hébert.
The set breaks apart and slides into a set with four gigantic Doric columns, flooded with ochre lighting that fades to warm orange-gold. Wallace as Homer comes on like the wallop of a hurricane. His solo blast at the unfairness of death is exquisite, ironic and heroic with black humor. Homer is bedeviled by bringing art to life, the same conflicts Rembrandt faced. And Wallace is an actor who can bellow gloriously in mock-heroic style and spellbind us. Standing brawny and towering, Wallace as Homer delivers Dickey’s most eloquent imagery, based on Alexander the Great’s golden chain, symbolizing material wealth versus the blind poet’s spirituality. Wallace directs his oration at us, as if he has stepped out of Rembrandt’s “Self-Portrait,” and glares into the audience. In a thundering voice, he cries out: “I want to see the Heavens and what a god really looks like.”
The poet, Homer, who was blind and allegedly penned the Western Civilization classics, The Iliad and The Odyssey, in a moment of wonder, asks: “Did I write anything of any value?” He expresses his frustration at the brevity of life. Even though death strikes before you really get to know another human being and get it into writing. “A good poem should make you look down and see yourselves.” The scene left me breathless with his question that I immediately personalized: “How will you die?” (Translation: How will I die?)
Then after another revolving set change, Simon’s death bed scene promises an ambiguous, surprising answer. Instead of to a Church priest, Simon, who is double-played by Craig Wallace, and Henry confess sins to each other about their relationship. Simon worries that he’s written eight books of poetry. But will anyone read them? The ultimate irony comes with Henry’s realization that the closer you get to an individual painting, the further away you are from grasping the total vision. You are punished if you can touch and are overly aware of the texturing of individual hues of reds, black, ochre, and whites. Then the overall vision recedes. I’ve always walked away from a Rembrandt feeling dignity and calm, as I did from this play. The ending, while surprising and satisfying, is mystifying. I wanted more clarity.
End Note: As if it’s a bonus for seeing the play, a program ad invites us to “Meet Rembrandt and His Masterpieces at the National Gallery of Art.” Admission is free admission. There are 17 of Rembrandt’s paintings in the NGA now, but not organized as an exhibition. www.nga.gov.
The Guard by Jessica Dickey . Directed by Sharon Ott . Featuring Tim Getman, Mitchell Hébert, Josh Sticklin, Kathryn Tkel, Craig Wallace . Scenic Design: James Kronzer . Costume Design: Laree Lentz . Lighting Design: Rui Rita . Sound Design and Original Music: Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen .
Dramaturg: Shirley Serotsky. Production Stage Manager: Brandon Prendergast . Assistant Stage Manager: Staci Blue . Produced by Ford’s Theatre . Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy.