February 14, 2003.By Graydon Royce, Star Tribune.
There are two Georges in “Sunday in the Park with Goerge,” the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical getting it’s Twin Cities professional premiere this weekend by Theatre Latte Da.
In the first act, we approach the manically driven Georges Seruat as he studies, plots and executes his pointillist masterpiece “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” Act Two skips ahead from lat 19th-century Paris to 1984, introducing a fictional George postulated to be the French neoimpressionist’s great-grandson, also an artist but not nearly so single-minded.
Actor Rodney Coe has lived inside the skin of each character. As a young actor and singer working in New Yrok, he said, “I was definitely Act One George – insane, driven.”
Then four years ago, Coe’s world crashed when thugs beat him with a baseball bats as he was walking home to his uptown apartment after a late-night concert. For three years, he went about the arduous task of rehabilitation – speech therapy, learning to cope with brain damage that affected his short-term memory, coming to grips with the changed resonance in his singing voice caused by breaks in his facial bones.
The process has helped him appreciate the questioning, uncertain George of Act Two.
“I can relate more to Act Two George,” he said. “He’s at that deciding point, looking toward the future, caught in the things of the past. He’s unable to be in the moment.”
“George” marks Coe’s return to the professional stage. He moved to the Twin Cities after the attack, because he reasoned that if he couldn’t resume acting, he might want to start a family. His passion though, has brought him back for this demanding role, which requires a two-octave voice, loads of stamina and the intensity of the man upon whom it is modeled.
Although he died at 31, Seurat is considered a major influence in art, as the originator of pointillism – carefully using dots of pure color, which blend in the eye to create dimension and distance. It is a scientific, intellectual approach with muted appearance, and Seurat stylized his images to create a distinctly cool, clean appearance.
But Seurat’s art came at the expense of his social life. Sondheim and Lapine introduce us to his long-suffering mistress, Dot, who takes second place to Seurat’s muse.
“Dot is the heart of this piece,” said Ann Michels, who has wanted to play the role since she watched Bernadette Peters in the taped theatrical performance that was presented on PBS (a production that included Guthrie actor Barbara Bryne).
“I’ve been in her situation,” said Michels, who last year at this time was rocking that Loring Stage in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”
“Being a passionate person, I’ve had relationships with artists, and sometimes those experiences with driven people are so difficult to maintain.”
Michels also likes Dot for more than her identification with the character.
“It’s a real actor’s role,” she said. “You can’t just bounce through. It combines my favorite things – good drama, art and amazing music.
Visually and technically, “Sunday in the Park” is the most demanding piece that director Peter Rothstein has attempted for Latte Da. He and his designers are constructing a proscenium in the Loring Playhouse that serves as a frame for the backdrop, on which Seurat’s landscape is represented. At the end of Act One, actors take up positions of people in the painting to approximate the tableau.
An acclaimed production in October by director Gary Griffin at Chicago Shakespeare theatre Studio took a minimalist approach, putting the action on a runway, with the audience on each side. That doesn’t seem right to Rothstein, who feels the art – the visual dimension – is part of the plot as it gets in the middle of Seurat’s relationship with Dot. Without seeing his masterpiece come to life, it’s difficult to empathize with Seurat’s diffidence toward his putative paramour.
Set designer Mike Hoover used a series of panels that slide back and forth across the stage, with Seurat’s painting on one side and the other left white. By doing this, Rothstein said, a scene can switch easily from park to studio, with the white panels representing an artist’s canvas.
In painting the set, Hoover started in the pointillist style, but pulled back because of the dissonance with Kathy Kohl’s costumes, which obviously can’t be represented in that style.
If critics have a problem with “Sunday in the Park with George,” which won a Pulitzer Prize, it revolves around the second act – that jarring leap Sondhiem and Lapine make with the help of a time machine.
“It is tricky,” Rothstein said. “There are complicated ideas that come up, and the magic and aesthetic of the first act seems to drop out.”
His approach is to attack the problem theatrically – all the costumes become black and white, the musical numbers become highly stylized and Rothstein said he wants to approach the sensibility of a moving picture.
“There’s an 11-minutes musical piece that lets you know immediately that this is a separate world,” said music director Denise Prosek. “You make it clear through visuals and music where you’re going.”
Although Sondheim has resisted the suggestions, this pieces has been labeled his most autobiographical, written during a period of introspection that had followed his artistic disasters – the collapse of “Merrily We Roll Along” on Broadway and his break with producer Hal Prince.
That sense of one’s reality echoing within the art, of a personal renaissance, holds particular significance for Coe.
“I’m just now getting back into musical theater and this acting things after four years,” he said. “It’s almost like I didn’t have a choice. It was busting out of me. It is the gift that God has given you. This is a huge deal.”