Review: The Rembrandt Room Is a Buntport Masterpiece

Every now and then, an artist — or, in the case of Buntport Theater Company, an artists’ mind meld — seems to pass through a metaphorical doorway. For more than a decade now, Buntport has been one of the bright lights on the local theater scene. With their company-created original works, members are capable of truly inspired goofiness, including a production based on Hamlet in which Ophelia was played by a goldfish swimming circles in a round bowl, giving a whole new meaning to Queen Gertrude’s lament, “Your sister’s drowned, Laertes”; light, laugh-outright comedy like their musical take on Titus Andronicus; grotesquerie; pensiveness; and intellectual inquisitiveness and moments of singular beauty, such as the one in Kafka on Ice when the writer sends a short story to his beloved Felice. In her hands, it unfurls into the paper figure of a man, and she dances with it. “The writing does quite well with her,” Kafka observes.

Good as Buntport’s plays have always been, The Rembrandt Room, a long monologue by a guide watching over said room in Russia’s Hermitage Museum, reaches new heights. It’s transcendent, a brilliant work of art. The guide, played by Erin Rollman, stands by Rembrandt’s “Danaë.” She directs people to the restrooms, tells them to stay two feet away from the paintings, forbids the use of flash photography. And she returns again and again to the painting itself, where Danaë is shown naked, reclined on cushions, gazing toward the light falling through a gap in some draperies. The guide tells Danaë’s story: Having heard a prophecy that he would be killed by her son, her father imprisoned her underground so that she could never bear a child. But Zeus, that randy shape-changer, entered her dungeon in the form of a shower of bright coins and impregnated her.

Over the course of the production, the guide talks about many interesting things. How we see and judge art. The difference between nude and naked. Her dislike for Titian’s version of Danaë. The role of Catherine the Great — the powerful patron of the arts who’s primarily remembered now for sniggering and apocryphal stories about the way she died — in the painting’s history. Mythic and cultural views of women.
The attack on the painting by a madman who poured acid on it and slashed Danaë’s belly in 1985, and the twelve years it took to get it restored. Rembrandt’s changes to Danaë’s face and changes that might have occurred during restoration. Rembrandt’s use of light, the mysteries of darkness and light. But the guide isn’t just giving us an art-appreciation lesson; she puts her own spin and interpretation on all of these ideas. Certain facts return again and again, and each time the meaning is deeper or a little different. The text is allusive, densely layered; you could keep yourself busy separating all the strands and contemplating them one by one. But you don’t want to get lost in an academic exercise; the point of this display is the nervous, spurty, ridiculous movements of the guide’s mind. She isn’t just anyone; she’s somebody very specific.

And this somebody is a figure that only Rollman, with her unique and considerable talents as an actor, could create. At first the guide seems eccentric — if not quite mad — with her nervous gestures, her weird laugh, the way her voice gets uncomfortably shrill here and there. She’s funny and silly and also tragic, particularly as you come to sense the echoes of her own life she finds in Rembrandt’s painting. But even when she’s most moving, catching at your heart with a moment of profound and mysterious grief, the guide undercuts herself with an ironic comment, tiny joke or apparent non sequitur. I’d call this is a tour-de-force performance, but that implies something flashier and more self-conscious — almost an insult to the deep, clear truth of Rollman’s work.

But Rollman didn’t create this piece of theater alone. The script was written by the entire company, which includes felllow Colorado College grads Brian Colonna, Hannah Duggan, Erik Edborg and SamAnTha Schmitz in a process I’ve never understood; I’d have expected writing like this to require solitude. But perhaps after all their years together, these artists have actually taken up residence in each others’ minds — and the result is beautiful.

The Rembrandt Room, presented by Buntport Theater Company through April 30, 717 Lipan Street. For ticket information, call 720-946-1388 or go to
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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman