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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
For starters, there's the unknown who tells her own story, like Pamela Giens whose Syringa Tree has enjoyed a long run. Also popular is the format in which a celebrity who talks and sings her way through her own story -- as in Elaine Stritch At Liberty, a deserved hit of the 20001-02 season, or John Leguizarno's latest and considerably less worthy autobiographical outing. Finally we have the "inspired by" celebrity biographical play inspired by the life and work of an artist, accurate or otherwise -- usually, the latter.
Two newest "inspired by" staged biographies are forged from original scripts: Carson McCullers (Historically Inaccurate) by Sarah Schulman, and Catherine Gropper's just opened Embers, which follows the trajectory of sculptor Louise Nevelson's career. Gropper, like Schulman, had much published material to draw on, including several biographies. Though she had the special advantage of having known her subject personally, her play, like Schulman's, falls prey to many of the stage biography's most common traps. Despite being stuffed with factual details, insider references to art world luminaries and an excellent leading lady, Embers feels more like an outline than a fully realized play that sheds new insights into the working process and psyche of the artist portrayed.
Nevelson, like McCullers, was a larger-than-life personality who enjoyed great success in her lifetime. Her rummaging through New York's trash for her art materials and her flamboyant style of dress caused the critic Robert Hughes to describe her as ""a cross between Catherine the Great and a bag lady." Like the McCullers play, Embers evolves through many short scenes and uses a troubled relationship (in this case mother and son, instead of husband and wife), as a central plot strand.
Director Helena Webb has created an atmosphere that gives us a nice feel for Nevelson's art. Towards this end she enlisted five artists to construct replicas of some of the artist's signature found object assemblages, most painted in black -- the color the artist once referred to as "the essence of the universe "- - and some in white and gold.
The careful staging and Nada Rowand's emotionally strong and physically authentic portrayal notwithstanding, Embers is weighed down by an over-abundance of incidents, name dropping and talk-talk-talk about the creative process. The mother-son relationship, whether fictionalized or true adds a soap opera element, especially with Kenneth Wilson- Harrington playinq Nick (Mike in real life) as a nonstop whiner who sounds as if he d wandered onto this stage from a rehersal of one of Tennessee Williams' more poetic Southern plays like Suddenly Last Summer.
There are two other characters:an adoring ex-cop and sometime lover named WIll (Michael Graves)and a devoted assistant named Dede(Melissa Wolff).Will s purpose in the play seems as a representation of Nevelson s many sexual partners,which Gropper alludes to in an ancedote Louise tells on herself on herself about her inability to remember a man even if she slept with him because "when it comes to men, I freelance."
According to the script,though not noted in the program, Embers spans thirty-five years (from 1950-1985), which takes us to three years before Nevelson s death at age eighty-eight. Even after she rips off her famous eyelashes at the end,Louise looks just a tad older and frailer than at the beginning. Since this is a realistic not an abstract play, having the characters remain physically frozen is likely to confuse the audience,especially anyone unfamiliar with Nevelson time line.
As the play has both too much and little detail, it also has many passages that either ring of platitude or strive too hard for poetry. As an example of the latter, here is Louise's sppech during the final rapprochement with Nick:
"you forged your way through my body like some wildebeest,all screaming with this mop of hair the color of black onyx.They held you up;its a boy and I thought my God,what have I done here,and my salt and your blood mixed together.Your voice as a baby like the end of some small volcano,crackling and smoldering with the Embers of life.It stains my heart like fingerprints."
The priduction has many nice touches.Terry Leong s costumes for Louise are knockouts and very aunthentic and the bi-level set by Jared Coseglia (who also handles the sound) gives the small stage a more expansive look. The rather jarring and too busy with prop movement blackouts between scenes are offset by the pleasures of the live music of jazz musician Leviticus Gory. His bow from the upper level of the stage is well deserved.
Interestingly, and apparently coincidentally,another play about Louise Nevelson is scheduled to begin previews and open next week. I am optimistic that Albee has written incisive enough lines for the Louise of his play to justify the stageworthiness of her life and legend.
Editor's Afternote. The Albee play never opened officially since its star, Ann Bancroft fell ill.
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