These are exciting times for San Francisco Playhouse. When co-founders Bill English and Susi Damilano jumped into a larger new home with more seats to fill, it took a leap of faith on everyone's part. The bar and lobby are bigger. The stage is bigger. The welcome result is that SFP productions now seem to carry more artistic weight, and artistic weight is a good thing when presenting "Bauer," a show written by Lauren Gunderson about the late German modernist painter Rudolph Bauer.
The production is superb. Gunderson is a Georgia girl but she now lives in San Francisco so we can finally call her a local treasure. The topic of "Bauer" is art -- but at its center we find a touching love story.
What a cast! Ronald Guttman plays Rudolph Bauer, the enigmatic modernist painter whose works once occupied the same lofty plane as Kandinsky, Mondrian and Paul Klee. Bauer's paintings were responsible for Solomon Guggenheim opening his new modernist museum, partly as a home for his large Bauer collection. What happened afterwards, if we are to believe Lauren Gunderson, is almost impossible to imagine.
Guttman's German-accented English is perfect, as well as his bearing as the proud painter now in decline. Stacy Ross plays Hilla Rebay, Bauer's long-time companion, confidant, lover and the person responsible for cementing his relationship with Solomon Guggenheim. Damilano plays Louise Bauer, the painter's one-time maid who is now his wife. Of the three roles, Damilano's is the most conflicted. Wanting the best for her seriously-ill husband, she must come to terms with the emotional connection that still crackles between her husband and his ex-lover.
Lauren Gunderson is only 32 years old. How in the world can she know what an elderly Louise Bauer would say to Hilla Rebay? And yet she does. Gunderson is having a banner year in San Francisco, with possibly everything she has ever written hitting area stages at once. One of the reasons is she manages to get inside the heads of historical figures in ways that make perfect sense to her audiences.
Rebay feels superior to Ms. Bauer: "Here we are. Two modernists and a maid."
More down-to-earth Ms. Bauer is trying to reconcile with the mercurial Rebay:
Louise Bauer: "Let's not fight."
Hilla Rebay: "How?"
And Bauer himself, at the end, with his arms around Hilla Rebay, says:
"I miss being young."
She says: "I miss being in charge."
RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Bauer" Four Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. This is quite a rating for a show that has had, up to this writing, exactly one live performance. (Bill English reminds us there have been four workshops and no less than fifteen versions already since they began the process.)
Each of the three actors merits no less than one star -- it is hard to pick out a favorite, though it's true that Stacy Ross gets most of the great lines. The fourth star is for Lauren Gunderson's playwriting and the BANGLE is for the innovative lighting and projections which bring Bauer's art to life on stage. Lighting Design is by Jordan Puckett and Projection Design by Micah J. Steiglitz.
Warning: There are no car crashes. All you get is great actors delivering a terrific story.
San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street, 2nd Floor of Kensington Park Hotel
Through April 19