In choosing to mount Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park With George, the Trouble Clef Theatre Company has taken on a hugely ambitious project and, to a large extent, has succeeded with it. Written in the early 1980s, Sunday in the Park is a musical about art, its place in the world, the artist's relationship to others, and the process of creation. It centers on a painting by Georges Seurat titled "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," which depicts a peaceful urban park with trees, seated people gazing at the river, others strolling with parasols in their hands. The painting is done in the pointillist style, with which Seurat revolutionized the art world. From a distance, an observer sees natural forms and human figures; as he or she approaches the canvas, those forms and figures dissolve into a thousand points of color. In a sense, the viewer participates in making the image and creates color, finding green in contiguous blue and yellow dots, purple between blue and red.
As the play opens, Seurat is painting his mistress and model -- named, of all things, Dot. She stands in her heavy dress under the merciless sun, squirming and complaining, but he's indifferent to her discomfort, pausing only to give her periodic commands -- to keep looking at the water, to open her eyes, to close her mouth, to move her shoulder. He is, it turns out, so obsessed with light, color, form and harmony that he's incapable of normal human attachment.
Through the entire first act, the artist labors over his masterpiece ("Sunday Afternoon," in fact, took Seurat two years to complete). The show has mischievous fun with the artist's ability to create a world. Seurat dislikes a tree, and instantly it flies off stage. Left to themselves, the people in the park idle, bicker, flirt, betray each other. None of this interests Seurat, who's concerned only with their shapes and with having them sit, rise or move according to his compositional needs. His is a fluid universe in which a monkey he's been observing for another work shows up. As the painting comes together, Seurat's relationship with Dot dissolves. Eventually, though she's pregnant with Seurat's child, she leaves him for Louis, a kindly baker. In the finished painting, Dot occupies the right front foreground, wearing a black hat and dress and holding a black parasol. Farther back stands a young man holding a swaddled baby: Louis.
There's a self-enclosed feeling to Sunday in the Park With George. It's a commentary not only on a great painting, but on itself as a creative work. No one who's seen it will see the original artwork in quite the same way again; the artwork, in turn, adds resonance and dimension to Sondheim's musical. Theater, like painting, is a visual medium, but it's also aural and kinetic: Where a painting is flat, drama occupies space and moves through time. Though it can't be put into words, there's something revelatory about the interplay between these artistic mediums. Sondheim's music is brilliant. Sometimes it mimics the rhythm of Seurat's brush stroke, very occasionally, it melts into sublime melody. In most musicals, at any one time, you're either hearing speaking or singing, but here the relationship of words and music is more complex, and the music winds in and out of the action. You can tell that, as he meditated on Seurat's way of working, his essential loneliness and the fact that the artist never sold a single canvas during his lifetime, Sondheim was also trying to understand his own work as a theater artist.
Act Two carries the theme forward into the contemporary art world. A second George, a direct descendent of Seurat's, presents an installation piece he calls "Chromolume Number 7." With its help, he and his great-grandmother Marie (the daughter of the baby we saw in the painting) describe the life and work of his famous ancestor. This George lives in a more decadent universe. He works the crowd, pimping them for money, good reviews and commissions. In a funny touch, he produces a couple of life-sized cardboard cutouts of himself to keep the hangers-on occupied while he slips away to contemplate his plight. Later, in a search for authenticity, he visits the island where Seurat worked, now a very different place. Slowly the figures from the painting return, and there's Dot in her black dress and hat -- an immortal image, and also once a real woman who was deeply changed by her encounter with the artist.
Paul Curran, who bears a slightly distracting resemblance to John Cleese, has a fine light tenor and does an excellent job as both George 1 and 2, though he needs to be a little more authoritative. Karen LaMoreaux is an appealing Dot. She's funny in the first scene, twitching with irritation at her forced immobility, and really touching in her second-act solo. She, too, has a good voice. Paul Page gives a strong performance as Jules, an envious fellow artist, and Lindsay Okasaki stands out as Jules's wife, Yvonne, bringing a clarity to the role that makes her seem outlined in black ink where the other characters are shaded in charcoal. Cathy Heine, as Seurat's mother, singing with Curran, gives a lovely rendition of a duet about mutability: She regrets the coming loss of trees and vistas; he tells her that all objects can be arranged so as to create beauty.
But there are also some hammy and distracting performances in the first act. In addition, there's a technical problem. It's hard to imagine any small theater company having the resources to come up with the dazzling set demanded by Sunday in the Park, but the visual element is crucial. At the Nomad Theatre, the set is flimsy, fails to hide some essential wiring and sometimes looks as if it's been painted on bedsheets. Also, the stage is small, crowding the actors and throwing off the spacing of the figures in the painting.
Making art is about striving for the impossible. Seurat tried to capture the quality of light using dots of color; Sondheim and playwright James Lapine translated from one art form into another, illuminating both in the process. And working on a shoestring -- and despite some problems -- the Trouble Clef Theatre Company has managed to communicate the essence of this charming, challenging and intellectually stimulating work.
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