World premiere focuses on Cone sisters
What’s it all about — art, literature, love, life?
Those are questions the play All She Must Possess attempts to explore to varying degrees in Baltimore playwright Susan McCully’s meta-theater premiere, being presented by Rep Stage at Howard Community College.
The 80-minute, one-act play doesn’t just break the “fourth wall,” it tears it down completely. Here, “the Writer” and her characters talk about lots of metaphysical things, not least how to present on stage the ultimate nature of art and people in the “modern age” dawning at the turn of the 20th Century.
They discuss, for example, whether expressionism and Cubism, the tradition-breaking art movements of the time, should be presented using the typical theatrical realism, or rather via an impressionistic method more in keeping with the theme?
The play-within-the-philosophy-of-the-play involves the Cone sisters of Baltimore, Etta (1870-1949) and Claribel (1864-1929), daughters of German-Jewish immigrants who settled in Baltimore in the 1870s, and whose family’s textile business made them part of a thriving Jewish community in the city at the time.
The two spinster sisters lived most of their wealthy lives in Baltimore, while going on many trips to Europe (Paris in particular), in their extensive efforts to collect modern art. They were able to afford the trips thanks to their annual inherited income of $2,400 each — considerable spending money back then.
The experts of the time considered the “degenerate” works of art purchased by the sisters to be worthless. But they now make up the world-renowned modern French collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
The museum’s Cone Wing houses more than 3,000 works by Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin and others, whose total value today has been estimated at $1 billion. There are 500 works by Matisse alone — the largest museum collection of the Post-Impressionist master’s artistic output anywhere.
Stein, Matisse and more
Along with the sisters, we meet on stage their great friends: sister and brother Gertrude and Leo Stein; Henri Matisse, who was their artistic soul brother; Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude’s longest lasting love, and Matisse’s “Blue Nude” painting, which comes alive in a frame on the wall.
A lot of the play involves the word play (and love play) between Etta and Gertrude, whose flirtations may, or may not, have gotten down to bodily passion.
A snippet of their conversation:
Gertrude: “Language cannot capture truth. What we experience in the subconscious mind doesn’t occur in words.”
Etta: “Well, I can’t say what I’m feeling.”
Gertrude: “If you say it, it already isn’t. Words can only say what that was or almost is.”
Get it? Got it? Good.
Director Joseph W. Ritsch moves the characters, as well as the dialogue and non-action action, along at a professional pace, so there are no really dull moments in this heavily dialogued play.
Etta, the seemingly submissive but inwardly fierce and longer-lasting driving force behind the sisters’ collection, is the play’s protagonist. You sense in Grace Bauer’s performance Etta’s true grit behind her outward reticence.
Valerie Leonard plays both Claribel Cone — the elder, outwardly surer, somewhat snooty and snotty elder sister — and Gertrude Stein. Leonard is an actress and a half in both roles.
The statuesque Leonard may seem an odd choice to play the much shorter, more rotund Stein, judging from portraits and pictures. But in theatrically expressionist terms, Leonard captures Stein.
Keri Eastridge is just right as The Writer, by turns cowed then insistent, as she interacts with her characters, who constantly argue with her about who and what they are (and aren’t) and will or won’t be for her when the curtain goes up on the curtain-less stage.
Nigel Reed, the one male actor in the cast, does his Frenchified best to portray a nice-guy Matisse and to convey brother Leo Stein’s take on beauty and art.
The not-so-sweet Alice B. Toklas is performed with fine faux innocence by Teresa Castracane, who also gets to speak as Matisse’s originally controversial “Blue Nude.” From her frame on the wall, she gives Etta lessons on what Etta and great art mean to each other.
There’s also a lot of projection on the initially bare walls — from huge Matisse works to typewritten letters (when Etta offers to type up Gertrude’s literary breakthrough scribblings). Credit the projection action to Sarah Tundermann. Julie A. Potter designed the costumes, most appropriate for the times.
All She Must Possess offers ample rewards for a playgoer who is all ears, and puts their mind squarely on what’s going on up on the stage.
The play runs through Feb. 25 in the Studio Theatre of the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center, located on the campus of Howard Community College at 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, in Columbia. There will be a post-show discussion on Feb. 23. Rep Stage will also hold a pre-show lecture prior to the 2 p.m. performance on February 24.
Tickets are $40 for general admission, $35 for patrons 60+ and the military, and $15 for students with a current ID. The Feb. 22 performance is $10. For tickets and additional information, visit www.repstage.org, or call the box office at (443) 518-1500.
There is also an exhibit of women’s clothing from the era of the Cone sisters at the Rouse Company Foundation Gallery, on the main floor of the Horowitz Center.