Alfred Stieglitz Loves O'Keeffe/Line | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Alfred Stieglitz Loves O'Keeffe/Line 

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Bailiwick Repertory


Synergy Theatre Company

at the Synergy Center

The strangest bedfellows are the ones brought together by the call of art. Independence usually comes with the creative territory, but what makes for original art can wreak havoc on a relationship. If two artists have different temperaments, choose radically different styles and subjects, and work in different media, the incompatibility can be massive. The wonder is that urban photographer Alfred Stieglitz and western painter Georgia O'Keeffe prospered together as long as they did.

Their dynamically divergent careers dovetail and divide in Alfred Stieglitz Loves O'Keeffe, a thin biographical double portrait by Lanie Robertson, author of another keyhole drama, Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill. Like that play, this Bailiwick Repertory season opener catches art in the act: we return, however briefly, to the human sources of those sepia cityscapes and very sexual flowers.

If theater feeds on contrasts, there certainly was potential in this subject. O'Keeffe was a shy Wisconsin expatriate (and at 30 a virgin) when she met the urbane, married Stieglitz. An extroverted, cosmopolitan Jew who delighted in his mission as a vociferous booster of modern art, Stieglitz was 23 years older than O'Keeffe and as public as she was private. He soon became her mentor and champion, overcoming by sheer chutzpah her midwestern reticence.

The love that grew between them overcame a lot of obstacles over the course of its 30 years. Though Stieglitz supported women's rights, he could be a tyrant in and out of bed. And it didn't take long before his energy threatened as much as inspired O'Keeffe; she needed to cultivate an inner stillness corresponding to the serenity of her New Mexico landscapes and whitewashed skulls.

Robertson's well-researched play draws on the letters Stieglitz and O'Keeffe exchanged during their long separations. In scenes that traverse the years between 1916 and 1946, the playwright covers a lot of ground; allusions abound to O'Keeffe's jealousy, her artistic rivalry with the critic and painter Marsden Hartley, her temporary desire for a child (an urge Stieglitz wisely predicted would distract from her art), Stieglitz's obsessive way of photographing her from every angle, her anger at being qualified by his colleagues as merely a woman painter. Played for all its minimal humor is O'Keeffe's indignation at the critics who pointed out the erogenous symbolism of her flower paintings. Yes, Robertson has assembled all the ingredients.

Above all, Robertson emphasizes the "love" in the title. We're constantly reminded--because these two repeat it over and over--how much they adore each other. A blatant case of telling what should be shown, it's one of many irritations in this ultimately trivializing and reductionist play. O'Keeffe and Stieglitz cavort like sitcom characters, playfully quarreling--whereas the real people had monumental squabbles necessitating transcontinental separations. Intensely self-conscious, the play never misses a chance to wallow in exposition, insistently telling us what year it is, how old they are, and just how we should feel about them. (The scenes in which O'Keeffe jokes and banters with the dead Stieglitz make even Ghost look intelligent.)

To take one example of its Disneylike revisionism, the play glosses over the fact that after the 82-year-old Stieglitz died in 1946, O'Keeffe destroyed all his negatives--with a knitting needle! Robertson's script defies the facts of O'Keeffe's anger, coyly suggesting that Stieglitz told her to do it: his revenge against a public that preferred to treat photographs as things. The truth would have added an incongruously harsh note to an otherwise sugarcoated script.

Worse, O'Keeffe is depicted with none of the grit that was truly hers and that went into her paintings. Robertson's dependent creature clearly needs a Stieglitz to complete her. True, in the play's later scenes she does develop something like an independent awareness, but by then it's hard to shake the memory of the earlier bubblehead. Ever ready to launch into a lecture, Stieglitz comes off little better. Alternately a gruff teddy bear and fatherly advice columnist, he's never at a loss for some cheerleading homily or sentimental bromide.

The most interesting element in Judy O'Malley's staging is its look. In Daniel Ostling's design, the entire set is a great unfinished canvas, a kind of art installation itself that beautifully sets off the reproductions of O'Keeffe's and Stieglitz's work. Less imaginative are the performances by JoAnn Carney and Kent Reed, work that on opening night looked jumpy and underrehearsed. Carney (whose fragile performance does nothing to distract us from her remarkable resemblance to Joan Allen) plays the early O'Keeffe as a dithering ingenue and the older O'Keeffe as a brainy Donna Reed. Fortunately she does look the part of a sensuous old maid, wearing her hair in a tight bun that, unraveled, makes her seduction of Stieglitz all the more erotic. Carney's face is worthy of a photographer's interest. Avoiding Stieglitz's accent altogether, Reed plays him like a gallery-owning Harold Hill with pep and bounce to spare. (What Shaffer did to Mozart, Robertson is more than willing to inflict on Stieglitz.) If these two were as inconsequential as their conversations in this play make them appear, thank God for their art, which speaks for itself.

Any ordinary event can contain the germ of an absurdist play. In Interview, Jean-Claude van Itallie turned an everyday job-seeking ritual into a bureaucratic nightmare. In Israel Horovitz's Line, five strangers impatiently queue up for--well, no one really knows. The attendees are a lummox who waited all night to be first in line, a boombox-toting kid who loves Mozart and sings the contents of his wallet (to Eine kleine Nachtmusik!), a tough dyke who knows how to make push come to shove, and a corpulent, slatternly wife and her dweebish husband.

Using devious or blatant means, each schemes to displace the rest and become first in line. To get her way the insatiable wife, for instance, copulates with everyone--even, to her surprise, her husband. But it's the manipulative kid who by various underhanded stratagems outfoxes them all.

Horovitz's citizens are textbook fanatics, people who double their efforts as soon as they've forgotten their goals. Predictably the game of "musical places" ends in anarchy--until, by some weird miracle, each gets his own line. (Yet another warped version of the American dream, I guess.) Still, you can see a lot in Horovitz's empty crowd--the territoriality of the truly insecure, the peculiarly American lust to be first no matter why or how, and the daily tension between obedience and violence that's part of what we mean by "keeping in line."

The first offering in the Synergy Theatre Company's "Buck Me," a series of hour-long, off-night presentations changing monthly, Robert Bouwman's staging of Line certainly captures the script's inspired silliness. But in its eagerness to please, it forfeits some of Horovitz's New York menace and paranoia--in effect, the anxiety that explains the characters' chronic one-upmanship and their elaborate calculus of supremacy.

As the Mozart lover, Patrick Brooks exudes the smug charm of a pretty boy used to getting his own way. Throwing modesty and everything but her dress to the winds, P.K. Doyle plays the nymphomaniacal earth-mother wife as if she were Roseanne Barr overdosing on aphrodisiacs. Mark Czoske as the neurotic "head of the line," Karen Hammer as the expert in manipulation, and Mark Boyle as the repressed husband provide solid stereotypes. They all get wonderfully out of line.

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