Review: World Premiere of Lauren Gunderson’s ‘Bauer’ at SF Playhouse (*****)

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: *****)

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

(“Bauer” plays at SF Playhouse through April 19th, 2014).

Rudolf Bauer is the subject of a brilliant new play about art and artists by up-and-coming San Francisco wunderkind, Lauren Gunderson. You should certainly see it. Before discussing the production, though, a little background is required.

You most likely have never heard of Rudolf Bauer. He was, however, along with Wassily Kandinsky and others, one of the great masters of non-objective (abstract) art, active in the early part of the 20th century. His reputation as a major artist seemed certain when Solomon Guggenheim became his champion, providing funds for Bauer to found his own museum of non-objective art in his native Germany, and selecting Bauer’s and Kandinsky’s work as the core collection of the Guggenheim Museum in the United States.

But fate and a woman intervened. As the political situation in Germany deteriorated throughout the 1930s, the foreign collectors upon whom Bauer relied to purchase his work and build his reputation visited less and less often. Then, in 1937, Bauer was imprisoned by the Gestapo as a “degenerate” artist accused of selling art works on “the black market”, by which they meant American collectors. It did not help that Solomon Guggenheim, his most prominent collector and promoter, was a wealthy Jewish businessman. So much for fate.

Stacy Ross as Baronness Hilla Rebay in the world premiere production of Lauren Gunderson's "Bauer" at SF Playhouse. Photo credit: Lauren English.
Stacy Ross as Baronness Hilla Rebay in the world premiere production of Lauren Gunderson’s “Bauer” at SF Playhouse. Photo credit: Jessica Palopoli.

And then there was the woman. Ah, yes, cherchez la femme. 

Rudolf Bauer and Baronness Hildegard Anna Augusta Elizabeth Freiin Rebay von Ehrenwiesen (or, simply, Hilla Rebay) were artists and lovers. The Baronness was also a collector and a promoter of non-objective art, who advised Solomon Guggenheim and was a cofounder of the Guggenheim Museum. When Bauer was imprisoned by the Gestapo, it was Rebay and Guggenheim who bribed the Nazi officials to secure his release. Then they brought him to America.

In America, something went wrong. Bauer closed up his studio and stopped painting. Completely.

When SF Playhouse’s artistic director Bill English heard this story, he thought immediately that it would provide the framework for a wonderful play. And then he had the good sense to commission Lauren Gunderson to write it. Ms. Gunderson has had multiple plays produced in San Francisco over the past few years, and is poised to explode on the national theatre scene. This wonderful play ought to do the trick.

Bauer (Ronald Guttman) and wife Louise (Susi Damilano) attempt civility by offering tea to Hilla (Stacy Ross).
Bauer (Ronald Guttman) and wife Louise (Susi Damilano) attempt civility by offering tea to Hilla (Stacy Ross).

Gunderson sets the play in Bauer’s abandoned studio, where he and his wife Louise are about to receive Hilla Rebay for afternoon tea. He hasn’t seen her in years, not since he stopped painting. With her arrival, a lifetime of repressed emotion is released among the three players. Gunderson’s script explores their personal history, the philosophy and politics of art, and the history of the founding of the Guggenheim Museum in language that is full of emotional depth, fascinating fact and delightful wordplay. In the course of the conversation, we learn why Bauer shut down his creative life.

These characters are remarkably vibrant and quick witted, and Gunderson gives them wonderful dialogue. When Bauer’s wife defends the Baronness by remarking, “She’s trying to be civil,” Bauer snaps back, “Life’s too short for civility.”

Invention (Composition 31) by Rudolf Bauer. Photo Credit:  Solomon Guggenheim Museum.
Invention (Composition 31) by Rudolf Bauer. Photo Credit: Solomon Guggenheim Museum.

Later in the conversation, Bauer reminds his former girlfriend about why he resented her relationship with Solomon Guggenheim. “You were sleeping with the man.” “Not a lot,” she replies. Later she says, “We could forgive each either. We’ve never tried that. It might be nice.”

This well-crafted dialogue is well-served by an outstanding cast. Ronald Guttman, an actor of wide-ranging accomplishment, is superb as Rudolf Bauer. Using charm and wit to mask a smoldering volcano underneath, he plays Bauer with an explosive sexual charisma and carefully managed rage. As Baroness Hilla Rebay, the always outstanding Stacy Ross is the epitome of class privilege and entitlement. Her gradual softening in the course of the play to reveal her tender feelings and artistic sensitivity is carefully calibrated in this polished performance. Susi Damilano as Louise Bauer once again demonstrates her superb comedic skills, never missing the opportunity to find the laughs in the midst of the drama, yet always emotionally on target and alert to nuance.

It’s just damn good theatre is what it is.

This production of “Bauer” is on its way to New York in the Fall where it has already secured an off-Broadway debut at 59E59 Theaters.

You should see it.

For further information, click here.

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“Bauer” a world premiere of a new play by Lauren Gunderson, comissioned and produced by SF Playhosue. Director: Bill English. Set: Bill English. Projection Design: Micah J. Stieglitz. Lighting: Jordan Puckett. Sound: Theodore J. H. Huisker. Costume Design: Abra Berman. Original Score: Savannah Jo Lack. 

Louise Bauer: Susi Damilano. Rudolf Bauer: Ronald Guttman. Hilla Rebay: Stacy Ross.

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