Off-Broadway Theater Review: BAUER (59E59)

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by Dmitry Zvonkov on September 9, 2014

in Theater-New York

A BIO-DRAMA THAT WORKS

“Of course I care (what she thinks), I hate her,” says a character in Lauren Gunderson’s Bauer, a San Francisco Playhouse production about the German artist Rudolf Bauer, who painted during the first half of the 20th century. It is one of many lines that pop in a play which, though a little bumpy in the beginning and with a dénouement that borders on sentimental, is a rare emotional and intellectual treat. Outstanding performances and Bill English’s deft and thoughtful direction make watching the show a rich and satisfying experience.

Sherman Howard stars as artist Rudolf Bauer in Lauren Gunderson's BAUER at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Ordinarily, when I hear of a bio-drama, I hurry off in the opposite direction. Mostly they are terrible. Crammed with facts whose significance is usually misinterpreted, they consistently lack truthfulness, drama, and a personal vision—which is what makes Ms. Gunderson’s creation all the more remarkable. The action in Bauer happens in real time, over the course of 90 minutes, taking the form of an imagined encounter between Rudolf Bauer (Sherman Howard), his wife Louise (Susi Damilano), and Countess Hilla von Rebay (Stacy Ross), a former lover and supporter whom Bauer now sees as his enemy.

Stacy Ross and Sherman Howard in Lauren Gunderson’s BAUER at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg

The year is 1953 and the great artist hasn’t painted in 13 years, ever since he unwittingly signed a contract that gave ownership of all his past and future work to the Guggenheim Foundation. Rebay, who effectively ran the Foundation, had encouraged him to sign it, and, with his limited English, Bauer had misunderstood the contract’s stipulations. But after these were explained to him he became furious and refused to create any more paintings for Guggenheim. His anger at the philanthropist extends to Rebay, with whom he’s not spoken in years. But now, out of the blue, she’s made contact and is coming to visit. Why? To apologize? To gloat? Bauer dreads the encounter. Then the countess arrives and her purpose is single-minded—to get the aging artist to paint.

Stacy Ross, Sherman Howard, and Susi Damilano in Lauren Gunderson’s BAUER at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Taking place in Bauer’s forsaken studio, the show, predictably, offers ruminations on art and what it means to be an artist. Less predictably, and fortunately, the playwright never handles these as abstractions. Every philosophical issue discussed has real and immediate significance for the people involved; they don’t just talk about these ideas, they live them.

Sherman Howard, Stacy Ross, and Susi Damilano in Lauren Gunderson’s BAUER at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Historical facts likewise are weaved into the personages’ present emotional realities. Ms. Gunderson’s layering is first rate. Along with meaningful insights, she gets us to sympathize equally with all three characters and their conflicting positions. Mr. English, who also designed the effective set, ensures that all the character threads are present in the performances: When Bauer rages or Rebay assumes a posture of casual arrogance, we sense not only the histories of these two, both as individuals and as a couple, but we also see through their behavior to the tremendous love and longing they still feel for each other.

Sherman Howard and Stacy Ross in Lauren Gunderson’s BAUER at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

photos by Carol Rosegg

Sherman Howard and Stacy Ross in Lauren Gunderson’s BAUER at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Bauer
presented by San Francisco Playhouse
59E59 Theatres
Tues – Thurs at 7; Fri at 8; Sat at 2 & 8; Sun at 3 & 7
scheduled to end on October 12, 2014
for tickets, call (212) 279-4200 or visit www.59e59.org

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