The title Gwen & Ida: The Object is of No Importance comes from a painter’s refrain to a film director that the subject of your art doesn’t matter, only that you make it. To this end, the audience of the work is irrelevant, so long as the work satisfies the creator.
Gwen & Ida starts with promising subject matter. It centers on Gwen John, a Welsh painter who produced art in a majority-male industry from 1895-1933, and Ida Lupino, a Hollywood film star who broke into the male-dominated field of film and television directing from 1949–1978. Both women balked gender stereotypes and were considered difficult to work with by their male peers.
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The theatrical conceit also has potential: David S. Kessler’s play opens with Ida Lupino pitching a film concept about Gwen John’s life to Jack Warner of Warner Bros. Studios. As she describes the painter, Gwen hears Ida’s description of her across time and space, and interrupts Ida and Jack to correct the ways they are sensationalizing her life.
But from that point on, the play’s structure flattens. The frame of the movie pitch all but dissolves and Gwen spends an hour telling her life story as Ida and Jack listen. The stakes of whether Jack will accept her pitch decrease, and most questions evaporate aside from whether or not Ida and Gwen will understand each other. While the diction is poetic and filled with sensory details, Kessler’s lines sound more like a biography or a short story than believable stage dialogue. Asking theatre audiences to hold their attention on this form of writing for 90 minutes is a tall order.
Throughout this majority-monologue play, the production does little to stoke the flames of the audience’s attention. While Aubri O’Connor manages a heavy line load as Gwen, the production provides few visual reference points for the extensive list of artists and locations she mentions, most of which will only be familiar to art history majors. One of Gwen’s paintings is displayed on a scrim, and Gwen often describes her line, color, and weight choices as an artist, but we never see her paint. Ida names the cinematic stories she wants to tell, but we never see her direct. It is difficult for an audience to emotionally invest in the fate of two artists when we never see their process or finished products.
As director, Lynn Sharp Spears could solve these problems by giving her cast more to do. Matty Griffiths is wasted as Jack, a buffoonish emblem of male patriarchy who sits in a corner of the stage, hurls expletives, and repeatedly demands that someone bring him a sandwich. Rebecca Ellis embodies Ida with historical accuracy, but spends far too much time on the sidelines. All of these characters could spend less time talking about their art forms, and more time performing their art for the audience.
Gwen & Ida: The Object is of No Importance closes June 29, 2019. Details and tickets
The script would benefit from more engagement between the characters. As written, the play’s biggest conflicts occur between characters in the past that Gwen recalls from memory, not the 1950s present that Ida and Jack inhabit. As a result, the tension feels distant and inaccessible.
The team behind Gwen & Ida mostly gets the aesthetics of the play right. They outfit the cast in period-appropriate buttons and brooches, set the stage with beautiful antique furniture, and pay careful attention to makeup and hair styling. The gallery space of CAOS on F is warm and inviting, with cocktails based on Kessler’s character-specific recipes available for purchase. The sound and lighting choices effectively convey scene changes, although the blocking causes shadows to fall across actors’ faces at inopportune times.
In a speech after the show, O’Connor, who is also founder and artistic director for Nu Sass Productions, said that the production is pay-what-you-will because she wants to eliminate monetary barriers to the story. But the key obstacle keeping audiences at arm’s length from Gwen & Ida is the story’s level of inscrutability. Without more effort to show Gwen and Ida’s artwork instead of only telling the audience about it, the importance of this object is easily lost.
Gwen & Ida: The Object is of No Importance by David S. Kessler . Director: Lynn Sharp Spears . Cast: Aubri O’Connor as Gwen; Rebecca Ellis as Ida; Matty Griffiths as Jack . House Manager and Understudy: Rachel Manteuffel . Produced By: Aubri O’Connor and David S. Kessler . Production Manager: Caelan Tietze . Set/Prop/Costume Design: Brigid Burge . Lighting Design: Helen Garcia-Alton . Sound Design: Charles Lasky . Scrim Painted By: Lynn Sharp Spears . Stage Manager: Charles Lasky . Produced by Nu Sass Productions and Uncle Funsy Productions . Reviewed by Kate Colwell.
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