Of all the reasons to love Baltimore, perhaps the most sumptuous are the Cone sisters—iron-willed Dr. Claribel and the softer, more social Miss Etta—and specifically, the stunning collection of modern art and other acquisitions they bequeathed to the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Most bona fide Baltimoreans were weaned on the Cone Collection—rooms upon rooms of Matisses, Picassos, Cezannes, Van Goghs, Gauguins, Renoirs, Delacroix, Cassatt, Corot, Vallottons—exciting, daring art that threatened to leap from the confines of their ornate Victorian frames.
The Cone Collection is more a feast than a statement about the taste and connoisseurship of two rich American spinsters. One telling photograph at the museum shows their apartments—paintings by Matisse, Picasso and other greats climbing up and down the walls like ivy; masterpiece upon masterpiece to the point where your eye can barely hold such beauty.
In the world premiere play All She Must Possess, playwright Susan McCully delves into the bon vivant lives of the Cone sisters, placing the more submissive sister Etta (Grace Bauer, in a powerfully discreet and subtle performance) in the spotlight over the older, domineering Claribel (Valerie Leonard).
The delightful and stimulating production at Rep Stage, which features fluid and free-form direction by Joseph W. Ritsch, doesn’t take a traditional biographical approach but instead uses playful wordplay and fourth-wall breaking techniques to not only tell Etta’s side of the story but to explore the meaning of expressionism and the insatiable craving for art.
Etta played second banana to Claribel, who went to medical school and became a doctor when, in the 1890s, it was unheard of (and considered by society to be unladylike). Claribel became a distinguished pathologist, forbiddingly noting in the play she prefers “things to people,” and by all indications was quite the battleship.
In contrast to Claribel’s bombast, Etta preferred the role of hostess and helpmate. But, as the play reveals, she was far from meek and passive. She actually started the collection by buying the first set of paintings, and while her early purchases were conservative, she made bolder choices throughout her years of travel with Claribel to Europe and beyond, maintaining and expanding the collection after her sister’s death.
McCully uses the clever convention of a play-within-a-play, which puts you in mind of Lauren Gunderson’s The Revolutionists, by having the Writer (an earnest and determined Keri Eastridge) a grad student type, pushing her agenda to write a play about “gay history hero” Etta and her relationships with her sister, with Matisse (Nigel Reed, courtly and articulate) and with great friend Gertrude Stein (Leonard again).
Spoiler alert: It has been strongly suggested that Etta was romantically involved with Gertrude Stein, until she was tossed aside for Alice B. Toklas (a cruelly exacting Teresa Castracane).
Trouble is, Etta and the other characters—including Matisse’s Blue Nude (Castracane again, a robust presence amid all this talking), who keeps popping out of her frame to provoke and inspire, like an errant character from Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George—won’t behave and do what the Writer commands.
All She Must Possess
closes February 25, 2018
Details and tickets
They act, well, expressionistically, in Pirandello fashion, breaking and busting up the narrative with explosions of feelings and words. “Expressionism resides in process!” proclaims the gentlemanly Matisse, among the play’s pithy aesthetic observations. In another scene, Matisse tries to explain to Etta that the opposite of a beautiful painting is not necessarily an ugly one, but that an artist like himself paints “the difference between things.”
Etta especially wants to tell her story, not as she quips “a post-modern meta-Etta,” but the dimensions and angles of who she was, all distorted and turned inside out, like a Picasso work in his Cubism phase. And she doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as gay or even bisexual, but wants her relationship with Gertrude to speak for itself.
And how it does. In a series of spellbinding scenes we watch the seductively circular-talking Stein (magnificently played by Leonard) captivate and confound Etta with her words and wordplay—her voice as velvety as the cloak she wears. Stein’s pronouncements on art and life—one of the wittiest remarks is that she willed herself to be a genius—and her dissections of words and word combinations until they become nonsense and then newly charged with meaning takes Etta’s mind (and aesthetics) into uncharted territory.
Who cares if Etta slept with Gertrude and maybe her brother Leo? Etta and Claribel were part of a bohemian, artistic circle and Etta speaks of falling equally in love with art, champagne, prosciutto and especially talk, talk, talk as she whiles away afternoons swilling chianti in Italy with Gertrude and Leo.
All She Must Possess shows that the whole of Etta’s life was her art and that art was her life.
All She Must Possess by Susan McCully . Director: Joseph W. Ritsch. Featuring: Grace Bauer. Teresa Castracane. Keri Eastridge. Valerie Leonard. Nigel Reed . Scenic Design: Daniel Ettinger. Costume Design: Julie A. Potter. Lighting Design: Conor Mulligan. Sound Design: William D’Eugenio. Projection Design: Sarah Tundermann. Dramaturg: Lisa A. Wilde. Production Stage Manager: Julie DeBakey Smith. Assistant Director: Sim Rivers. Produced by Rep Stage . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.