In the past few weeks, the big headlines for theater people were mostly flashy. Famous plays, mean plays, experimental plays, and big-budget musicals opened across the three counties, while Sol Theatre got a major overhaul and came roaring back to life after half a year of inactivity. And so theater people — myself included — should be excused for coming late to the realization that two of the very best things to happen in this hopping milieu are gentle little wisps of plays with no flash at all.
Nilo Cruz's Two Sisters and a Piano opened at the Promethean Theatre two weeks ago with a whimper rather than a bang. There seems to be something wrong with Promethean's publicity people: If anybody, anybody else were opening the regional premiere of a homegrown Pulitzer Prize winner's play, the seats would be packed. Not so at Promethean, which was maybe 70 percent full on opening night. This is wrong. One regrettable production of Cyrano notwithstanding, Promethean is one of the coolest companies in three counties, producing more mind-expanding weirdness than most of the competition combined (think recent productions of Juan C. Sanchez's Red Tide and Caryl Churchill's A Number). This sort of action would play beautifully in Miami. Maybe Davie, where the Prometheans do their thing, is more sedate.
If that's the case, it would at least seem the Prometheans now know it. Two Sisters is neither weird nor experimental, and it's so subtle that it almost evaporates on the stage. Two Sisters is set in Cuba in 1991, in the living room of sisters Sofia and Maria (Ursula Cataan and Deborah Sherman). Some years earlier, Maria, a writer, penned a tract advocating the expansion of personal liberty in Cuba, and her sister signed her name to it. Both wound up in prison and, having served their terms, are now under house arrest for the rest of their lives. Maria spends her days knitting and listening to Sofia play soft songs on their crumbling piano. Some of the tunes Sofia plays are banned, but at this stage of their confinement, the sisters are too bored and tired to observe the fine print of the law. Anyway, the soldiers who occasionally ransack their house in the night have no interest in such things. Their job is only to make the women afraid, and both they and the women seem to know the drill. Even the soldiers' loudest threats sound rote, and there is a certain limpness to Promethean's production that gets right to the bone of how deeply tired the characters are of their assigned roles.
The inertia of the proceedings serves to underscore the fiery moments of real drama that explode occasionally from the stage and how shattering those moments must be to people who for so long have been forced to live lives of total predictability. Maria's sudden entanglement with the semi-sympathetic Lt. Portuondo (Ricky Waugh); her occasional soliloquies to her absent husband, who seeks asylum for her in Europe; Sofia's momentary fling with piano tuner Victor Manuel (Mathew Chapman, who sucks scenery like nobody and imbues the show with its sweetest human moments) — these events feel imported from some other show about some other, freer country.
It's interesting to note the painterly title of Two Sisters and a Piano. If you change the word sisters to pears, it would be a great name for a still life. This is probably intentional, for a still life is exactly what Two Sisters feels like: The drama possesses the same slow burn of van Beijeren's Banquet or Davis Stuart's Tree and Urn.
The same could be said of Joel Gross' Marie Antoinette: The Color of Flesh, which opened two weeks ago at Boca's Caldwell Theatre and is indeed about a painter. It too is a slow burner, though for most of its first act, it exhibits none of Two Sisters' natural grimness. Nor should it. Two Sisters is set among political prisoners in Cuba, and Marie Antoinette is set in the highest classes in the waning years of the French decadence. It is a gay and witty lovefest filled with innocent intrigue. Only as it nears its conclusion — which nudges up to but never quite reaches the Terror of St. Just and Robespierre — does Marie Antoinette ever achieve the gravitas that pervades the whole of Two Sisters. The rest deals with two friends of the Dauphiné, the maybe-fictional Count Alexis de Ligne (Jason Griffith) and the definitely real Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (Janine Theriault). Vigée-Lebrun was maybe the most famous of all 18th-century female painters; she worked as Antoinette's chief portraitist until she was replaced by Alexander Kucharsky in 1789. It is hard to tell whether Joel Gross drew Vigée-Lebrun's character from her published memoirs or from his imagination, and the question is beside the point in any case.
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In Vigée-Lebrun, whether the real painter or the imagined one, Gross has found a perfect foil for a dialectic on the virtues of the eternal noble verities — beatified in art and long-championed by both artists and nobility — versus the more prosaic concerns of France's moderate Republicans of the time, a view exemplified by Alexis. Alexis is himself noble (as Vigée-Lebrun points out: "You've never even met a peasant!"), though a staunch believer in the American Revolution and democratic principles. The clashes between the worldviews of Alexis and Vigée-Lebrun are given their kick by a delicate love story presented by the best acting ensemble assembled for any SoFla show this year.
Flashing forward in increments of four months or six years, Vigée-Lebrun, Alexis, and Marie Antoinette come to know and love one another deeply. Though their stories are informed by history, Gross' style remains resolutely personal rather than historic, and it's given traction by meltingly subtle, human portraits from Caldwell's actors, the women in particular. Jones is there, in Antoinette's skin, acting all of the Dauphiné's many roles from the inside out: reluctant lover, well-meaning but disinterested politician, frustrated wife, devoted mother. When Jones incarnates these personas, she doesn't don them like masks but emanates them from some secret self that is full of sympathy for the doomed Antoinette. Until she is imprisoned, she never truly grows up; watching her commingled sadness and bravery as public opinion turns against her is to see a young woman wrestling with a fate for which she has had no preparation. The world is coming down on her, and for a few moments, Jones seems able to measure its weight in the set of her mouth and the cast of her eyes.
As Vigée-Lebrun, Theriault is, if anything, even stronger. She deals with much the same conundrum, though with lesser stakes. She is an artist who has set out to paint the nobility in people, and to that end, she has sought out people who are noble. With the very concept of nobility in retreat — about to be subsumed by the angry rabble, which from her post at the periphery of privilege looks every bit as mindless and cruel as it must have appeared to Louis XVI as he was led to the guillotine — her entire concept of value has been upended. This means more to her than it does to Antoinette, who was born to value nobility. Vigée-Lebrun had to learn it, to rationalize it — and just as Jones' turmoil is the uncomprehending turmoil of set-upon innocence, Theriault's belongs to a thinking woman. Even as she reflects this, she retains her grip on the quick-mindedness of the devoted social climber who rose from the mob to become best friends with a queen and who soon must find another place to alight.
This is a lot to show on a face or in a voice, but she does it, and she never cracks for a second. If there is a single valuable thing to be learned in a historical drama, it is that the past is populated with people who were every bit as free and serious as we fancy ourselves. Nobody demonstrates that better than Janine Theriault is demonstrating it right now.