Directed by Bill English
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
Lauren Gunderson’s “Bauer,” currently playing at 59E59 as part of the 5A Series, transforms the rhythm, the form, the line, and the order of Rudolph Bauer’s life and work into sheer unbridled magic. The events of Bauer’s life – from his arrival in the United States in 1939 to his death in 1953 – are well known and accurately rehearsed in Ms. Gunderson’s succinct and brilliant ninety minute play which was commissioned by the San Francisco Playhouse in January 2014. What cannot be well known is the meeting of Bauer, his wife Louise and Hilla von Rebay shortly before his death in the Bauer’s Deal, NJ home: it cannot be well known because it never took place.
Addressing the oft asked question, “Why did the prolific non-objective artist Rudolf Bauer stop painting,” “Bauer’ tackles the important and often elusive components of the creative process through the meeting between the Bauers and Hilla Rebay. The play also tackles the essence and meaning of true love: Louise Bauer (Susi Damilano) hatches a plan to get Hilla (Stacy Ross) to visit Ruddi (Sherman Howard) because she knows her husband and Hilla are still very much in love and if anyone has a chance to reignite Ruddi’s artistic fire it would be Hilla – or perhaps (without revealing too much) it would be the combination of Hilla and Louise.
After a scene-chewing beginning – during which Bauer and Hilla are able to provide the exposition needed to understand the heart of the play – the play comfortably transitions into a delicious cat-and-mouse game which results in freedom overpowering the fear of the past and rekindling Rudolph Bauer’s indomitable creative spirit. Hilla and Bauer had been fellow artists and lovers and it was a contract Hilla convinced Bauer to sign when he was “straight off the boat from a war zone” that lost Bauer his control of his corpus of work which was intended to be displayed at the new Guggenheim Museum but – due to a falling out between Guggenheim heirs and Hilla – ended up not on the walls of the museum but in a vault in the museum’s basement. Here is Hilla’s gauntlet delivered without mercy to the intractable Rudolf Bauer:
“No. We have a fight. So let’s fight. That’s why I came here today. I thought that’s what we were going to talk about – your future – without [the Guggenheim foundation]. You can survive this … if you paint. What are they going to do, come up here and take your new work and out it in their basement? No. They’d get run out of town for doing that to any artist much less you. So paint. Dare them to come here and take it from you.”
Under Bill English’s precise and invigorating direction, the ensemble cast delivers a transformative triptych of performances. Sherman Howard is flawless as the brooding, angry, and depressed Rudolf Bauer who “stopped himself, gave up, and gave in.” Mr. Howard makes no meaningless movements and spares no inflection, no pause to authentically convey the depth of despair his character has experienced. Susi Damilano makes it clear that her character knows she is the default lover, the former maid turned spouse. Her Lousie Bauer is as indomitable of spirit as her husband and is determined to not allow him to “go gently into that good night.” And Stacy Ross is unstoppable as Hilla Rebay whose steely exterior magically transforms into a palate of redemptive love. These three performances are among the best of the best and they use Lauren Gunderson’s script to create their dynamic, authentic, and believable characters.
Bill English’s stark white set design provides the perfect backdrop for the projections – real and imagined – that gloriously catalog the play’s progression from beginning to end. Micah J. Stieglitz’s projection design is nothing short of brilliant and the final projection is something the audience will never forget. In partnership with Theodore J. H. Hulsker’s sound design and Mary Louise Geiger’s lighting design, Mr. Stieglitz’s projection design provides a triumvirate of remarkable creativity that teases the human imagination and the human id with provocative prowess. Abra Berman’s costume design not only captures the period but subtly assists in the definition of character and mood.
What Louise and Hilla manage to provide for Ruddi, they equally transmit to the audience with a catharsis rarely experienced in contemporary theatre. Hilla’s promise to Rudolf Bauer is a promise proffered to each audience member yearning for freedom: “The cosmic order, the crack into nature that we find in art, you will trust it again.” See “Bauer” and risk trusting the crack into nature the play’s cast and creative team provide with sheer unfathomable grace and beauty.