The Rembrandt, Jessica Dickey’s play presented by the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company as a regional premiere, wants so much to say something profound about art, life, mortality and immortality, but just doesn’t. There are a lot of ideas flying about, but the ultimate effect seems cloudy and unmoored — and this despite the fact that with me, the script is speaking to the already converted. I believe with all my heart in the primacy and necessity of art; when I enter a gallery, I tend to feel as if I am walking into one of those hushed, centuries-old English churches. Growing up, I would sit in front of the El Grecos and Boticellis at the National Gallery in London for hours, wondering about the people who created these masterpieces, what the paintings conveyed, and what separated a work of art from just a picture. Of course, guards were around, sometimes willing to talk to a visitor, sometimes napping, and in one case coming forward to help me pick up the rolling colored beads that had just dropped embarrassingly from my snapped necklace.
Dickey’s play was originally called The Guard, and the central character is Henry, a retired art professor and guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The play begins in partial darkness; Henry speaks as a light slowly reveals his face. He is standing in front of Rembrandt’s “Aristotle With a Bust of Homer,” though we never actually see the work, only the reactions of those looking at it. This opening works well; the script refers more than once to the dark colors Rembrandt preferred and the way they accentuate Aristotle’s pale face in the painting. For a while, Henry’s words are intriguing, but — as we soon learn — the man does tend to go on.
With Henry is Johnny, a uniformed security guard and — as played by Jihad Milhem — one of the liveliest elements of the production. Enter Madeline, a student who’s come to copy the masterwork, and the iconoclastic Dodger, a guard in training who soon urges everyone to touch the painting. Initially outraged, they do, and soon we’re transported to Rembrandt’s seventeenth-century home, where Henry becomes Rembrandt, Dodger — somewhat confusingly —his son Titus, and Madeline Rembrandt’s partner, Henny. This scene is a mess: It’s not funny, incisive or earthy in the way that I suspect it’s meant to be. From a video, I later learn that Dickey does have a cohesive vision that should make sense here. At its center is Henry’s grief for his poet lover, Simon, who’s dying. Henry’s a buttoned-up guy, and the experience of entering Rembrandt’s world helps him understand more about mortality and the ephemerality of art, so that he can finally deal with his lover in a more tender and compassionate way. The problem is that when Simon was mentioned earlier in this production, Henry hadn’t seemed grief-stricken, only rather cold.
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But in the third scene, the play springs to exuberant life with Homer — a Simon alter-ego — taking over. Homer is musing deeply on mortality, as Simon must be, and wondering if his art can endure through time. In the hands of Jim Hunt, who plays the role, his spirit is life-affirming and undaunted. The energy remains strong as the play moves into its final phase, with Henry and Simon joking and teasing as only longtime lovers can do...though it doesn’t help credibility that Simon’s cancer, described as stage four, is so non-specific. How does it manifest? Can he really just drift without struggle into his eternal sleep?
Adrian Egolf as Madeline/Henny, Erik Sandvold keeping all the balls aloft as Henry/Rembrandt, and Spencer Althoff’s Dodger in his dated Mohawk: All these performances are fine, too. But somehow the acting seems muffled, as if deadened by either the lifeless parts of the script or the flat white and gray set.
Oddly, there’s another play with Rembrandt at its center on a local stage: Buntport is bringing back its brilliant The Rembrandt Room, which communicates the power of art in ways that The Rembrandt does not, despite its good intentions.
The Rembrandt, presented by the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company through March 3, Dairy Arts Center, 303-444-7328, betc.org.