by Tina Howe
Directed by Annamaria Pileggi
Dramatic License Productions
October 23, 2014
Rembrandt’s Gift is an intriguing little play. I say “little” because it’s surprisingly short and concise, and I say “intriguing” because it’s not easy to categorize. It’s a domestic drama, a comedy, and a fantasy all rolled into one, involving the famous 17th Century Dutch painter acting as a combination catalyst and counselor for a troubled present-day couple. It’s a fast-moving play with an interesting concept, and the biggest strength of Dramatic License Productions’ latest presentation is its excellent cast, along with some wonderful technical elements.
The story takes place entirely in the cluttered New York City loft apartment of married couple Walter (John Contini) and Polly (Kim Furlow), who are dealing with a multitude of issues, including Walter’s OCD and hoarding, threats of eviction, and Polly’s regrets over the stagnation of her once-celebrated career as a photographer. Walter, once a successful actor, has become increasingly housebound and attached to his large, unwieldy collection of theatrical costumes and other memorabilia, and Polly is increasingly frustrated with his life-dominating rituals and his unwillingness to help her clean up the house in preparation for a meeting with their landlord. When an argument erupts surrounding Polly’s favorite framed self-portrait of Rembrandt, the two are shocked to find the painter himself (Greg Johnston) standing in their hallway, after having apparently been transported via a mirror on the wall. Rembrandt, who speaks in a style reminiscent of Shakespearean English, is understandably bewildered by his sudden arrival in 21st Century New York. Meanwhile, Polly–who seems to have had something of a historical crush on the painter–is thrilled, and Walter is suspicious. As Walter, Polly, and Rembrandt struggle to make sense of their situation, events transpire that challenge the strength of Walter and Polly’s marriage, as well as challenging all three to confront their own life goals, dreams and regrets.
This is a very quickly paced play, with some witty dialogue and a lot of historical background. It’s obvious that playwright Tina Howe did a lot of research about Rembrandt’s life, and all three characters are richly drawn. There are a few surprises along the way as Rembrandt’s role in Walter’s and Polly’s lives evolves into something unexpected, and the conclusion is upbeat if a little bit simplistic. Still, the real strength of this play is in its characters, and they are ideally cast here with excellent local performers. Contini’s portrayal of Walter is especially noteworthy, in showing the full range of emotions of this proud, aging actor who is being forced to confront his own fears and limitations, as his sense of devotion to his beloved costume collection is contrasted with his devotion to his wife, with the surprising antagonist being the out-of-place Rembrandt. Johnston plays the painter with a charmingly baffled air and a sense of renewed wonder, as the transplanted artist is forced to discover a new world of sights, sounds and people. Both actors play well against one another, with an intense confrontation in the second act that includes a dynamic and at times hilarious sword fight choreographed by Erik Kuhn. Both also display strong chemistry with Furlow, whose wistful Polly is torn between her commitment to Walter and her star-struck enchantment with Rembrandt. All three performers do excellent work here, carrying the weight of the story on their shoulders and managing to maintain sympathy and energy.
The technical elements are especially well done here, as the small performance space in Chesterfield Mall is transformed into a cluttered SoHo loft that looks like a cross between a theatrical costume shop and an attic. The set design, by Cameron Tesson, is richly detailed, as are the ideally suited costumes by Teresa Doggett. From Rembrandt’s robes to Walter’s conglomeration of theatrical garb, the costumes help create and maintain the tone of both confinement and whimsicality at the center of this story. There are also some fantastic lighting effects by lighting and sound designer Max Parilla. This is the kind of show in which the setting is almost a character in itself, and the production values are very impressive here.
This is a play about relationships. It deals with a husband and wife’s relationships with one another, as well as artists with their fans and with their art. Although the story can be bit simplistic at times, it’s full of funny and poignant moments, as well as strong dialogue. Ultimately, Rembrandt’s Gift at Dramatic License is worth seeing for the quality of the physical production and, especially, the first-rate cast. It’s another great reminder of the sheer depth of talent in the St. Louis theatre community.