San Francisco Playhouse has taken its hit production of Bauer to New York City, and this powerful piece of theater is certainly making its presence felt, drawing audiences in greater numbers than any production which has previously been staged at the 59E59 Theaters.
Bauer, the first SF Playhouse world premiere commission to go to the main stage, had a tremendously successful run in San Francisco earlier this year. Even so, Susi Damilano, Artistic Director of the Playhouse – who plays the role of Bauer’s wife – is amazed at the reception in New York.
“We’ve had great houses,” she says, “and consistently, as the show comes to an end, we can hear the sniffles in the audience. When the lights come up on our curtain call it’s overwhelming. The New York audiences are effusive … and the front rows are so close to the stage that I often get lip-synced “thank you’s” and “terrific”. People are really affected by this story, it brings up stories of their own, of lost treasures and people.”
Commissioned from Bay Area playwright, Lauren Gunderson, by Playhouse Directors David English and Susi Damilano, Bauer portrays an episode during the latter years of the life of Rudolf Bauer, regarded as one of the most important exponents of Non-Objective art of the 20th century.
Imprisoned by the Nazis in for his “subversive art” in 1937, Bauer was so driven by his creativity that he used any scrap of paper on which he could lay his hands in order to continue sketching. His release was engineered by his long-time lover, Baroness Hilla Rebay – by then one of the Guggenheim’s most trusted curators – with the backing of Solomon R Guggenheim – who is said to have regarded Bauer as an even greater painter than his contemporary, Kandinsky.
Rudolf Bauer emigrated to the United States in 1939 – believing that his dream of a permanent museum for his work was possible through Guggenheim. However a dramatic feud subsequently erupted between Bauer and his benefactor – the result of a contract which Hilla had persuaded him to sign, but which, due to his poor grasp of English, Bauer didn’t quite understand. Devastated by what he deemed an act of betrayal by Rebay, Bauer put down his paintbrush and never painted again.
Lauren Gunderson’s play, although historically accurate, is a representation of an imagined meeting between Bauer and the two women he loved most – his wife Louise, and Hilla Rebay – some years after he’d removed himself from the world of art. The action centers around the power struggle between the three of them, and the intrigue behind Bauer’s decision to lead a life of obscurity, away from the world of art.
The New Yorker has described Bauer as “beautifully written”, and The Huffington Post writes of “the heated language” as “passionately literate”, referring to the exchanges as “the flicking of exquisitely sharp verbal knives” ….. with an “explosive denouement [which] is simultaneously breathtaking, uplifting and heartbreaking”.
Director Bill English says: “We were so honored when Elysabeth Kleinhans and Peter Tear of 59E59 Theatre read Bauer, and even in the early stages of its development, saw something powerful enough that they invited us to join their 5A Subscription Series for 2014-15.
“We’ve been especially honored ….. to have Bauer’s great-niece from Germany come to see the show. Trembling with emotion, and thrilled that this family story was finally being told, she said, ‘As the great-niece of Rudolf Bauer, I found the play riveting and filled with passion’.
“And the nieces and nephews of Solomon Guggenheim came to a recent performance,” Bill says, “and stayed after with the cast to share anecdotes. Despite the conflict between Bauer, Hilla and the Guggenheims, all seemed to want to let bygones be bygones over cocktails!”
The San Francisco Playhouse production of Bauer stars Sherman Howard in the title role, Stacey Ross as Hilla Rebay, and Susi Damilano at Louise, Bauer’s wife. It’s presented at 59E59 Theaters through October 12th, 2014, and tickets are available at 59E59.org.
Running concurrently with the production are exhibitions of Rudolf Bauer’s work – at the German Consulate and at Sotheby’s – in New York.
For more information on Rudolf Bauer, and to see a selection of his works, visit the website of the Weinstein Gallery.