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Rossetti's Circle

You have found success in a world of mediocrity.--- Dante Gabriel Rossetti to John Everett Millais

Amy Fitzmaurice and Daniel Kaemon
(Photo: Stephen Verona)
Nineteenth century poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti has a plan to move forward by moving back. He wants to rescue art from its bourgeois conventions and take it back to the purity and iconic colors of the medieval period. His Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood is anathema to the establishment painters of his day and, like many artists, his work was not admired until after his death, which may have been caused by an overdose of laudanum, the drug of choice of that period.

Playwright/director Anne Hulegard tells her story in straightforward chronological terms with only a few dream scenes which are realistic given Rossetti's temperament and habits. Whether or not you know the story of Rossetti's circle, Hulegard has told it absorbingly well, aided by the charismatic Daniel Kaemon in a finely shaded performance as Rossetti and an excellent supporting cast.

The play begins with a fervent group of young artists clustering around the iconoclastic figure of Rossetti. He could be vulgar, he drinks too much but he's a fascinating rebel and an irresistible force to such painters as Edward Burne-Jones (Brian Graves) and John Everett Millais (David Webb), as well as William Morris (Adam Smith), who segued into the decorateive arts and whose designs are available to this day. The scarf worn by one of the actresses can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's shop.

One of the perks of being an artist is the acquisition of beautiful models and the Circle, and this production, are particularly lucky in this respect. The first is Lizzie Siddal (Amy Fitzmaurice), who becomes an acclaimed painter in her own right, as well as Rossetti's wife who, wins his heart with her dignity and sweetness. Other models include Fanny Cornforth (Carmit Levite), a prostitute who becomes his housekeeper and mistress for most of his life, and Jane Burden (Jennifer Seifert), who marries Morris but is obsessed by Rossetti.

Hulegard finds the humor and exuberance in the painters' lives and points out the perennial relevance of Rossetti's insistence on painting his own way and not displaying his pictures to the disdainful eyes of critics. Financially supported by his friend Morris (hebought all his pictures anonymously) the mesmerizing leader of the pack is a difficult friend who finally becomes impossible. Most of the Pre-Raphaelite bunch drift away and a final blow is Millais' acceptance of election to the Royal Academy of Art.

The Pre-Raphaelite models are as distinctive as the wide-eyed Keene children. They all have voluptuous lips, sad eyes and cascading voluminous hair that's beyond big. Lizzie Siddal's life was truly tragic. She lost two babies and died at age 28, possibly of an overdose of laudanum. A distraught Rossetti buried the only volume of his poems with her, only to exhume her some years later to retrieve them. The reason and his description of Lizzie's corpse are among the most unforgettable Rossetti memorabilia and Hulegard handles them with ghoulish tact. Lizzie is played by Amy Fitzmaurice, who bears a striking resemblance to the real Lizzie and has the range to do her justice, with only a few moments of annoying coyness which may justifiably be Lizzie's, too. Carmit Levite does a great Cockney accent as Fanny and brings toughness and possessiveness to her role. Jennifer Seifert is a stunning vibrant Jane. The men in Rossetti's circle seem subdued in comparison, though the actors have the chops to expand them. Adam Smith projects a gentle web of interesting repressions. Brian Graves is a well-meaning Burne-Jones and David Webb finds the anger and passion under Millais' mild-mannered gentleman.

Diana Mann as Costume Coordinator has assembled some beautiful fragments and the set design by Hulegard and Brian Graves succeeds by draping the walls in bleached fabric.

Playwright/Director: Anne Hulegard
Cast: Brian Graves (Edward Burne-Jones), Daniel Kaemon (Dante Gabriel Rosetti), Adam Smith (William Morris), Amy Fitzmaurice (Elizabeth Siddal), Carmit Levite (Fany Cornforth), David Webb (John Everett Millais), Jennifer Seifert (Jane Burden)
Set Design: Anne Hulegard and Brian Graves
Lighting Design: Buddy Tobie and Brian Graves
Costume Coordinator: Diana Mann
Running Time: Two and a half hours, one intermission
From 3/24/06 to 4/29/06
Ruby Theatre at the Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood, Reservations: (323) 960-7792.
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on March 26./tr>
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