Morisot Reclining tells two love stories — both involving great artists of the impressionist period, neither of them consummated. Edouard Manet had a decades-long friendship with Berthe Morisot, who eventually married his brother, and there is great warmth and intensity in the paintings he did of her. Edgar Degas, arrogant and aloof, had an equally important, though perhaps more ambiguous, relationship with Mary Cassatt, the American impressionist. For his play, author William C. Kovacsik, a local actor, has created an intriguing device: He brings Degas and Cassatt back from the dead to recount their friends' tale and act out all necessary ancillary roles, from Morisot's mother to Manet's model, Victorine. Between scenes, the two bicker, explain and discuss what piece of stagecraft to use next. We become aware of the charged silences between them — Cassatt's stifled love for Degas, his undeniable but confused feelings for her. The dialogue is elegant throughout and sometimes witty, and it's fun watching these astonishing painters interact, keeping their sexual passions under wraps while freely sharing their passion for their work and discussing the problems of female artists in a male-dominated world. The show is also visual fun: Director Rebecca Ramaly and scene designer Tina Anderson have made good use of slides, so that images of some of Manet's most famous paintings of Morisot appear behind the two actors playing the roles as they laugh or quarrel in the studio.
The first act flies enjoyably by, but the second begins to drag as the storyline gets more complicated. Manet has married solid, bourgeois Suzanne; Morisot is contemplating a marriage with Manet's brother, Eugene. There's a rift over a showing of impressionist art, with Manet angrily rejecting the trend. Many of these scenes lack the lightness and fizz of the earlier ones, without bringing a compensatory emotional deepening. Some feel as if they've been included just to move the story forward, and Kovacsik comes at them head-on rather than imaginatively re-creating the events. The dialogue occasionally becomes obvious: "You had his passion," Suzanne accuses Morisot bitterly.
Although all of the acting is skilled and professional, there are problems here, too. Matthew Mueller is a delight as a multi-faceted Degas — funny as hell in a dress as Morisot's mother, without ever going over the edge into pantomime humor, and genuinely moving as Eugene Manet, who slowly realizes that he can never obtain his wife's love. But you don't feel the requisite burning ambition and dedication from the rest of the cast. Karen Slack is always vivid and interesting on stage, but her Morisot isn't as specific and differentiated as she should be — although the problem certainly lies with the script as much as the actress. Stephen Weitz is a strong actor, but his Manet doesn't seem to have any particular feeling for anything — not for art or Morisot, let alone Suzanne (a little mild affection, surely?). Weitz maintains a civilized, slightly stuffy Victorian demeanor throughout, which may be appropriate, but it's the little demons peeking through the placid-as-a-sofa exterior that make the Victorians interesting. Lindsey Pierce projects a warm, kindly presence, with no hint of Cassatt's prickly toughness and independence.
Also missing is a real sense of the fury that drives people to give up comfortable, middle-class lives for the pain, uncertainty and very occasional triumphs of a career in art. There's a lot of talk among the characters about the artist's vanities and insecurities, the impossibility of giving up art; the trouble is, the talk doesn't feel visceral. The actors carry around neat, small white canvases and wield brushes, but none of them appears to be actually painting. Or even really seeing. Artists don't see the way the rest of us do. A painter once told me he had to rein in his visual impulses just to walk down a street; if he didn't, the wealth of imagery he received at every step would send him reeling against a wall.
Still, even if it falls short of transcendence, this world premiere of Morisot Reclining shows promise. The script is an assured and intelligent work by a talented local playwright, given a serious staging by the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company. One more iteration might take this play where it needs to go.