Steppenwolf ensemble members Guinan and Mahoney are the glue
Two Steppenwolf lions, as this writer is wont to think of them—John Mahoney and Francis Guinan—yet again linger in our mind as acting giants as we leave The Rembrandt. They are playing lovers—Mahoney is the fragile older man dying of 4th stage cancer and Guinan is his husband begging him not to leave him alone in the world and apologizing for all his failings through all the years.
Intimate, nuanced and real---this is the kind of acting and the type scene that in itself makes The Rembrandt worth your time and money.
Art, Mortality and Immortality
The import of their domestic bliss being torn apart by mortality had been introduced in a quasi-poetic way by every prior scene. Guinan’s character, Henry, keeps himself out of ‘the death house” as he and Simon (Mahoney) have nicknamed it, by sticking to his job as a museum guard where he spends his hours with many of the world’s greatest art treasures, including Rembrandt’s ”Aristotle with a Bust of Homer”, the focal point of the action.
On this day he was training a guard newbie, Dodger ( Ty Olwin) and sharing a gallery space with Madeline (Karen Rodriguez), a recently bereaved granddaughter who has taken up painting in hopes of re-setting grief to a back corner and moving her life forward.
Former teacher Simon is a man who knows all about Rembrandt’s painting. Notice the different sizes of his two hands. Notice the symbolic gold chain that carries one to Olympus and the Gods, and how bright this symbol of immortality shines. It shines so brightly in fact, that they might feel compelled to touch it!
And then playwright Jessica Dickey takes us time traveling back to Rembrandt’s studio when the painting was made and when Homer was already a literary immortal, and then back further still, when Mahoney gets to play none less than the great Homer. This frail Homer notes the great length of his Iliad and Odyssey not with apology but chiding us to understand that they were actually meant to be heard and not read, suggesting perhaps we should cut him a bit of slack. In this same soliloquy he outlines the joys of domesticity with a detour double entendre story about how his wife fell for the boring baker.
If you read this prior sentence with a bit of a mind freeze trying to assemble disparate notions of antiquity with a modern sensibility, know that when you see The Rembrandt you have a lot of that in store. Playwright Jessica Dickey has perhaps explained her penchant for anachronistic flourish by noting that artistic genius Rembrandt didn’t bother to dress Aristotle in loose Greek robes but rather garbed him in the modern Dutch styles of that time. That observation seems to be wielded by Dickey like a “get out of jail free” card, unleashing her and the entire production team to a history foggedaboutit. Dickey’s Rembrandt (played by Guinan) peppers his talk with so many references to a “putz” that at times you may think he is doing a Borscht Belt standup routine.
That said, this is an engaging story that captures your imagination. From this writer’s vantage point, it’s not unlike a train ride through gorgeous scenery that is somewhat obliterated by smudges on the window. You too may find yourself longing for a bottle of windex and a rag to help get better focus—but you wouldn’t crave that if there wasn’t so much good view to take in.
Director: Hallie Gordon
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO. Click here to read — Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Note: An excerpt of this review now appears in Theatre in Chicago.
Thru November 11
Various show times, daily except Mondays.
Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre
1650 North Halsted