Stacy Keach Zoom Theater, the “good friends of Lincoln Center Theater” is offering a free virtual event to benefit The Actor’s Fund. The world premiere of Lanie Robertson’s magnificent play The Gardener is streaming live until February 18, 2021 on this link. https://www.stacykeachzoomtheater.com/
Starring Ed Harris as Claude Monet, Stacy Keach as the Prime Minister of France, Georges Clemenceau, and Amy Madigan as Monet’s stepdaughter Blanche, the playwright spins out the days which become the turning point in the lives of Monet and Clemenceau as they reaffirm the closeness of their relationship as good friend,s who inspire each other to benefit the culture and world around them.
Robertson begins the play identifying elements that essentially intimate the cultural times in which both men, lived though not through specific dates. The chronology is abstruse. For example Monet has lost his wife Camille and his son, Jean which has devastated him. And he refers to these events and their impact on him as does his stepdaughter Blanche. At the top of the play we follow the discussion that Clemenceau has survived an assassination attempt which identifies the time around 1919 after WWI. After the assassination attempt which Monet and Blanche believe killed Clemenceau, he turns up jocularly alive to visit Monet. The painter is at Giverny, Monet’s studio and garden, which he is planting and developing and to which Monet refers as his true legacy.
Interestingly, Clemenceau doesn’t “get the love” Monet expresses about the flora and fauna of the garden environs which Monet works day and night, and has come to know as intimately as he knows his paint’s thickness on his variety of brushes. Clemenceau claims he prefers the city noises, uproar and busyness of street hustle and bustle and his life as a politician, journalist and Prime Minister of France.
Much is subtext and inference in this play which draws one into the mystery of these two icons. It may force one to look up more information about the time, Monet’s greatest of masterpieces and this statesman of France who was prickly, Republican (in the French sense of the word) a humanist, Monet’s good friend and lover of art. I cannot imagine a better selection of cast than Amy Madigan, Ed Harris and Stacy Keach who also acutely directed this vibrant production.
Of course though Clemenceau could not have foreseen the romance of Giverny for global tourism and posterity, art lovers and professionals alike understand the importance of Giverny’s gardens to Monet’s final works; the garden informed his painting and provided the inspiration and respite to innovate and be energized to the muses of the creative process. Thus, both Monet’s garden and his works have become synonymous with Monet’s complicated genius and artistry.
What is intriguing about Robertson’s The Gardener, which heightens this interplay of Monet’s artistic talent being dependent upon his skill as a gardener, is the vitality of Monet’s relationship with Clemenceau. Again, this is inferred as the great unspoken. It was Clemenceau who after Monet died, arranged for the display of Monet’s Nymphéas (Water Lilies) cycle which eventually ended up in 1927 at Orangerie, now Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, France. Clemenceau understood the greatness of Monet’s intention to symbolize the hope of peace, and healing power of nature, light and solace of the garden to soothe and renew the souls of soldiers who returned emotionally and psychically deadened after the hellish abyss of WWI. Clemenceau’s attraction to Monet’s work and friendship, was reaffirmed in 1908 and lasted to the end of their lives. Robertson suggests Clemenceau sought Monet and his work for its power to revitalize and restore his being. The friends’ connection lies beyond the veil, in an ineffable, immutable bond. And if one investigates further, theirs was an agreed upon arrangement that was fated for all time.
What is not spoken of in the play, Robertson alludes to and the brilliant actors convey, inhabiting these iconic individuals. It is Monet’s Water Lilies masterpiece that he worked on for three decades and to which Clemenceau encouraged him to add panels. The day after the Armistice in 1918 was when Monet asked Clemenceau to take two panels which he signed on Victory day and offer them to the State. Clemenceau was the intermediary to have Monet’s “great decoration” displayed in the way Monet wanted, a display that he finalized the conceptualization of right after his son Jean died. Thus, when Harris as the bereft Monet discusses Jean’s death with Clemenceau and the sonorous and vital Amy Madigan as Blanche expresses her grandfather’s great grief and hers at Jean’s loss, we understand why Monet sent away everyone from his home. We understand his need to be alone for his final work to be finished. We understand (sorry for the spoiler alert) why Blanche leaves with Clemenceau. It is for the greatness of what is to come; and all contributed in their way to its becoming.
This “becoming” achieved its final form in the arrangement of the panels in the Orangerie as a panoramic frieze exhibited seamlessly to embrace the viewer in two elliptical rooms. The two panels at Clemenceau’s suggestion grew to 8, though Monet pledged more. But these 8 are the apotheosis of the Water Lilies cycle that Monet had begun thirty years before. He meant it to be his final contribution to the uplifting of France and perhaps for all time and for all of the world, as a monument to peace.
It has been said that Clemenceau encouraged Monet to create a total of 19 paintings some of which Monet destroyed. Indeed, Monet held them all back, hoping to achieve greater and greater perfection until he could work on them no longer, and his death released the paintings to Clemenceau in 1926. In1927 Clemenceau secured the 8 panels to establish the exhibit which is the impressionist’s monumental achievement, not necessarily appreciated nor understood by the public in 1927 or the next decade.
However, when one visits the Musée de l’Orangerie, one experiences the arrangement of Monet’s unique vision of form and color in a watery landscape that is sprinkled with waterlilies, shimmering ripples, willow branches, tree and cloud reflections, varying shades of light and dark green vegetation, all suggesting the ethereal qualities of light and air. Symbolized beautifully is the thread of life these natural elements that were conceived in Monet’s consciousness and then manifested in his garden which, for as long as it remains, imbues the eternal as does the “great decoration.”
Monet said about his creation, it is the “illusion of an endless whole, of a wave with no horizon and no shore.” Assuredly, the “elliptical shape of the rooms” suggests the mathematical symbol for infinity. The panels are a seamless continuum in time and space materialized. Likewise, Monet conceptualized his garden, planted, watered and cultivated the rich soils to express a beauty which he materialized using his vast array of knowledge of florals and accompanying plants to align the inner eye with the infinite, the eternal. His Garden and Monet’s exhibit in Musée de l’Orangerie are nonpareil.
This production is broadly relevant in its themes and scope. What better way to memorialize the message to remain uplifted through art in our time of mob violence at the Capitol, the horrifying insurrection against democracy, a noxious political divide and a pandemic. What could be better than to view the exchanges between two exceptional actors portraying cultural giants looking back to a similar time (the aftermath of the brutal WWI and the Spanish flu epidemic) as they worked to bring the hope of peace through the halo of artistic expression.
Harris, Keach and Madigan give brilliant performances re-imagining individuals we are barely acquainted with but know culturally. Memorable is Madigan’s humorous taking down of Harris’ Monet when as Blanche, she is outraged that Monet gives her pate to the cats, the sumptuous pate that she slaved. Her specific and factual description of what it took to make pate back in the day is marvelous. The actors convey the humanity of these greats at a still point in time that allows us to identify, engage and appreciate their friendship and the value of such friendships in times of great trouble.
The messages, themes and parallels of that time to this carry great relevance and currency for us today. Bravo and thanks to Robertson, Harris, Keach, Madigan and the creative team for this superb and unforgettable zoom theater experience. To see it CLICK HERE. https://www.stacykeachzoomtheater.com/ IT ENDS ON FEBRUARY 18, 2021. You will be happy you did. And after you finish watching, donate to The Actor’s Fund, CLICK HERE
Secrets are the bricks that layer the foundations of family histories. Such secrets may serve as supportive bonds to keep a family together through trials and catastrophes. They may spur families to create protective walls against a foreboding and nullifying social order. They also may imprison family members in a bottomless well of pain. What is hidden often then develops a dark, spiritual life of its own to create havoc until family members finally confront its reality.
Sam Shepard’s profound, Pultizer Prize-winning tour de force Buried Child is The New Group’s new production directed by Scott Elliott, currently at The Pershing Square Signature Center. It explores the devastation when what lurks underneath becomes an implement family members use to hack at each others’ souls. As they provoke one another and stir up whirlpools of misery, what has been concealed is eventually unearthed and they must confront the fear of its loathsomeness. Only then can they employ their strength to either reconcile with the past and heal, or die.
At the outset, we are introduced to the paterfamilias, Dodge (ironic name choice), sitting on the sofa as if he occupied this space without purpose and there is nowhere else for him to go. Dodge (Ed Harris) is nearly invisible.
Certainly he melds into the shabby interior of the house and the worn furniture. Except for the occasional cough and accompanying sip of whiskey from a bottle he hides under his blanket, we wouldn’t notice anything significant about his presence until he converses with his wife Halie (Amy Madigan), who is upstairs getting ready for an outing. Their exchange becomes funny when Dodge mocks her pretensions and her suggestions, i.e. for their son Bradley to cut Dodge’s hair, which Bradley always butchers. Dodge’s wit and clever personality indicate that though he may now appear to be down-and-out, he once may have been a man to be reckoned with. He well plays the role of nagged husband, tolerant of Halie’s persistent, shrill commentary about everything from the weather to son Tilden, who makes his entrance soon after Halie tells Dodge to take his pill.
The brilliance of this play is in its suggestive, interpretative aspects; it is opaque and ambiguous, yet clearly sounds a bell of alarm. Characters present bits and pieces of information like a reversed puzzle. Truths slip in and out like whispers. Unveilings abide in the off-beat comments and actions of Tilden (a terrific Paul Sparks) and Bradley (the fine Rich Sommer), and in the contradictions posed by Dodge about the past and present. Glimmers of light reveal key themes about the flawed nature of human beings and their unsatisfying relationships, of the oppressiveness of fearful secrets that are not allowed to be uttered or expurgated, of the resulting soul sickness that chokes off vitality.
As Shepard brings this family to us through their conversations and clashes, we divine the background story, of a brokenness that overwhelms all of the sons and Dodge, and of a protective, hard lacquer that glistens from Halie’s persona as she steps quickly through time without looking to the right or left and especially not into the past.
Tilden, once an All-American halfback, is child-like, dense, withdrawn: these may be weaknesses caused by that “trouble in Mexico” a while ago. The obstreperous Bradley was careless with a chainsaw and chopped off his leg.
Bradley’s movement “to go far” has ended; he must wear a prosthetic device to go anywhere. The most promising son, Ansel, died in the military, and Halie, who meets with inoffensive, smarmy Father Dewis (Larry Pine) to discuss the placement of his statue in the community, brings the priest in for tea and stirs havoc. Clearly, Halie has sought religion to stave off the darkness.
Shepard’s writing is precisely rendered. He wanders his characters through a filtered catastrophe that they have long suppressed. Their meanderings with each other are filled with humor, thematic layers, poetry, and symbolism. The dramatic action is interior; when Tilden, Bradley, or Halie appear, disappear, and interact, the molecules have been stirred, the atmosphere changes, and tensions strain. There is the sometimes gentle, sometimes antagonistic sparring among the four. And Dodge is central; he grounds all who enter and leave with brusque ease. He is the family linchpin, and only he will be able to exhume what sickens in all of them when the time is ready.
Shepard’s grand metaphor of the harvest, sown in the past and now ready to be picked and enjoyed, is spiritual, interpretive, and surreal. It is a harvest seen and recognized by some in the family and not others, much as truth and circumstances are perceived and interpreted individualistically. Shepard combines this metaphor with an even greater one, a human embodiment of the harvest in the characterization of Vince (Tilden’s son whom no one initially acknowledges or seems to remember), and his girlfriend Shelly (Taissa Farmiga is appropriately sharp and intrusive), whose curiosity eventually prompts Dodge to reveal that which has been rotting the foundations of their family relationships and particularly Dodge’s soul.
That Vince (a portentous and dangerous Nat Wolff) and Shelly appear at precisely the right moment when the crops are ready to be harvested is a singular mystery answered by the play’s conclusion. Dodge finally discloses the secret of the fields and acknowledges that he is no longer afraid; it is then that the reckoning comes. Shepard emphasizes in Buried Child that there indeed is a season for everything. And regardless of whether we want to acknowledge it, the ripeness of fulfilled truth eventually is visited on a family, though it may skip a generation or two.
This is a magnificent production, prodigiously acted by the ensemble cast and brilliantly conceived, staged, and designed by Scott Elliott and his team. The production throbs with tension. The undercurrents vibrate throughout. Above all the character portrayals balance evenly to create a living portrait of the poignancy of human families.
Ed Harris resides in Dodge with sustained concentration and moment-to-moment precision, even as the audience shuffles in and fumbles around for their seats (before the play begins). Harris embodies the character’s rough-edged, blunt and ironic persona and it is difficult to take one’s eyes off of him. His seamless sliding underneath Dodge’s skin is without equal. Amy Madigan as Halie is his perfect counterpart, striking and glorious one moment and in the next shrew-like and high-pitched as if stretched to the point of breaking.
Indeed, Elliott has guided this cast into taut perfection; Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Paul Sparks, Taissa Farmiga, Rich Sommer, Nat Wolff and Larry Pine would not be as alive in their characters as they are if the balance and the pressure were not tuned to a proper pitch by each actor’s work.
Buried Child is beyond memorable. It is is one for the ages. The New Group production runs until April 3 at Pershing Square Signature Center.