Inventive staging is work of art in `Sunday in the Park'


Critic's Corner// Theater


"Art isn't easy," states a lyric in Sunday in the Park with George. That statement goes double - at least - for this Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical about 19th-century French pointillist painter Georges Seurat.

In his impressive production at Fell's Point Corner Theatre, director Bill Kamberger doesn't make easy work of this challenging musical; that would violate the spirit of the material. But he has assembled an admirable cast, and, in the relatively tight quarters at Fell's Point Corner, he has found inventive ways to stage this complex look at creativity.

Seurat is painting his masterpiece, "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," in the first act. On Broadway a wondrous coup de theatre ended the act, when he moved the characters into place, creating a human tableau of the painting.

At Fell's Point Corner, the actors aren't all ideal physical embodiments of their painted counterparts, but the director has come up with another clever device to suggest the workings of the artist's mind. Kamberger has three white-clad actors portray what he calls "Harlequins." Instead of commedia dell-arte clowns, however, these are more like kurogos, the black-garbed scenery shifters in traditional Japanese theater.

When Randall Dunkle's Seurat says, "I hate this tree," one of the harlequins turns the panel displaying the tree. And when Seurat's model/mistress, Dot (Santina Maiolatesi) complains about the heavy dress she is posing in, the harlequins help her remove it.

Kamberger also makes imaginative use of a scrim at the back of the stage. For example, during the song, "We Do Not Belong Together," the scrim separates Seurat from Dot.

Maiolatesi is a standout as Dot, whether slickly delivering the lickety-split lyrics in the title song or softly but warmly singing the touching "Children and Art" in the second act, when she plays Dot's daughter, now a nonagenarian.

In the title role, Dunkle fares better in Act 2, which takes place 98 years later and has him playing Seurat's great-grandson. Although Dunkle never seems sufficiently obsessed as Seurat, he's credible as the painter's modern descendant, who has reluctantly learned to navigate the worlds of art, technology and commerce.

The modern-day second act can seem disjointed from the first. But perhaps due to the intimacy of Fell's Point Corner, a closer connection is felt between the acts and also between the audience and characters. And that's how it should be. Because, ultimately, making connections is what Sunday in the Park is all about.

Show times at Fell's Point Corner, 251 S. Ann St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays, through June 11. Tickets are $17. Call 410-276-7837.

Anticipating new play

Naomi Wallace's Things of Dry Hours, a play inspired by the history of the Communist Party in Depression-era Alabama, will be the sixth play in Center Stage's 2006-2007 season. The three-character drama concerns an unemployed African-American Communist, his grown daughter and a white stranger who is running from the law and shows up on their doorstep. The play is expected to make its New York debut at the New York Theatre Workshop in summer 2007.

Praising the poetic language and "almost magic realist theatricality of the piece," Center Stage resident dramaturg Gavin Witt said the play offers an "unexpected view of the world."

A 1999 MacArthur "genius" grant winner, Wallace is a British-based, Kentucky native whose other plays include In the Heart of America, One Flea Spare and The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek.

Things of Dry Hours premiered in Pittsburgh in 2004. It will be produced in the Head Theater at Center Stage April 27-June 3, 2007.

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