The cracking-wide-open transformation in artistic temperament and creativity is what South Florida playwright Michael McKeever seemingly aims to track in his new play, The Impressionists, which opened as damned entertaining theater last week at the Caldwell Theatre Company.
Through The Impressionists, McKeever has set out to define "a time, a place, a moment" for the fringes of the Paris art community of the 1860s and 1870s, when "with a blink of an eye," paradigms shifted and something new and thrilling was hatched among a group of upstart painters, some timid and some arrogant, as they discovered new abstract forms, played with light in fresh ways, and boldly used color in experiments that threw off the old guard of the stuffy Paris Salon.
McKeever couldn't have picked a more suitable convoy of accessible artistic household names to chronicle, including confident Edouard Manet (Eric Martin Brown), abrasive and tactless Edgar Degas (Tim Burke), brashly visionary Claude Monet (Terrell Hardcastle), cautious and sensitive Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Bruce Linser), funny-sarcastic Camille Pissarro (George Kapetan), suppressed Berthe Morisot (Deanna Henson), and the supporting players of somewhat lesser-known painters Eduoard's brother Eugene Manet (Michael Corry), Berthe's sister Edma Morisot (Kathryn Lee Johnston), and a dusty symbol of the previous artistic tradition, Charles Gleyre (Peter Haig).
The Impressionists is one of those history-theater experiences that bring out the most self-congratulatory aspects of its audience, somehow unable to hold back harrumphs of satisfaction as they match characters on stage with reproductions of ballerinas hanging in the foyers and bathrooms of their McMansions. As each character is introduced, expect nodding affirmation and/or catcalls, from the first introductions of Monet and Degas right on through the asides by Pisarro about how he's lately been teaching some crazy kid named Cezanne.
This effect proves just how much the Impressionist crew remains the most recognizable collection of artists, even 150 years later, thanks to mall poster shops and an easy-on-the-eyes sophistication. Is there a college dorm anywhere in America that doesn't contain at least one print of Monet's Water Lilies hanging next to Doisneau's Kiss by the Hotel de Ville and those cute-as-hell Hang in There kittens?
Water Lilies, appropriately, then, forms a strong visual cue in the production's simple but clever scenic design. Walls are covered in canvas reproductions of paintings, and a fabric representation of Water Lillies flows like a stream across the stage. The smartest inclusion, though, is the video screens that flash mood-setting paintings by the artists, providing a dreamlike context as you listen to the actors.
McKeever is a careful playwright, balancing scenes of funny, sometimes moving dialogue with poignant letters read to the audience, all of which hit on the play's goal of creating an everyday human backdrop for the legends. Painters meet their compatriots, expose angst about their work, continually confuse Monet and Manet's names, skip out on café checks, and bicker with studio models.
But he's also designed a fine arc that builds through the first act to hit a strong dramatic stride as the painters face turbulent times during the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War. Reflections on the siege of Paris and the establishment of a new French government cleverly turn The Impressionists into an unexpected antiwar play with a loaded challenge how are we going forth to be creative and, like the daring painters of the 19th Century, change our world during our own turbulent times? With flawless acting in delicious period costumes and spot-on dialogue, scenes roll along with careful momentum. Hardcastle as Monet and Burke as Degas lead the acting charge, with Kapetan as an utterly cool Pissarro. Each actor is individually wonderful, though within a certain range, as the whole never fully comes together to transcend the sum of the parts.
It may be McKeever's trepidation and caution that doesn't allow him to speculate too much about the painters' lives, diluting the onstage group into recognizable stereotypes, like Breakfast Club kids slotted into brain or basket case. Yes, of course, it's an impression of the Impressionists, after all, but the play's encyclopedic scope often makes it feel like educational outreach dispatched into rural counties from the Wadsworth Atheneum.
When it comes ultimately to cracking everything wide open in a time, a place, a moment we don't necessarily get to see far into the Impressionists' breakthrough moments of genius, only broad referential strokes about that genius. While The Impressionists succeeds in humanizing the Impressionists in a fun and satisfying way, it's also procedural, more like a series of interesting footnotes than a deeper reflection into the creative process itself.