Chicago Theatre Review
Art, Ecstasy, and Despair in Greenhouse’s ‘The Portrait’
Solo Celebration – Greenhouse Theatre
The latest in Greenhouse Theater Center’s “Solo Celebration!” – a highly ambitious eight-month series of solo plays – “The Portrait” is a powerful, wonderfully produced (and world-premiere) glimpse into the life of Gustav Kilmt, the pioneering Austrian painter best known for “The Kiss.”
Set entirely in Klimt’s Vienna studio, “The Portrait” pivots between two timelines. In one, Klimt (played by the charismatic Cameron Pfiffner) flirtatiously addresses a young woman from a prominent Vienna family who, he hopes, will grant him a commission to pain her portrait; in the other, Klimt addresses via letter his sister-in-law, a woman he deeply loves yet, because of considerable personal shortcomings, is incapable of fully committing himself to.
In her notes accompanying the play, writer/director Susan Padveen described Klimt’s love for women: “[Klimt] just loved women. He did not love perfect women, he did not love thin women or fat women. He treasured them all.” That quality shines in “The Portrait,” and under Padveen’s direction, Pfiffner beautifully brings out those qualities of Klimt’s personality. Whether he be complimenting his portrait subjects hair, waxing poetic about the finest sausages in Vienna, or detailing the dozen or so cats who lived in his home and studio, Puffer’s Klimt is forever a charmer, an artist of considerable confidence and charisma who will use every weapon in his arsenal – from compliments, to begging, to even singing opera – to get the women and commissions that he needs.
Yet, Klimt’s life was not all free love and hanky panky. Raised under the umbrella of a troubled marriage – Klimt’s father, an alcoholic, insisted to his death that he had made a mistake in marrying Klimt’s mother – Klimt matured with a deep suspicious of the institution; as a result, he insisted on a bachelor existence while still gorging on the many emotions and pleasures of relationships, which led to no small amount of turmoil in his life (ultimately, Klimt would father 14 illegitimate children with various women).
Pfiffner is particularly strong in those more intense moments of the show, and he is aided in subtle ways by Jacqueline Penrod’s scenic design, Benjamin White’s lighting, and Christopher Kriz’s sound, along with Ben Lenz’s media design, which casts faint images of Klimt’s artwork and correspondence on the stage wall. Yet, if there is any weakness to “The Portrait,” it comes in those moments when Pfiffner details Klimt’s past. Though wonderfully acted, the sequences do not come across naturally, at least in how Padveen has written them; rather than weaving anecdote into the larger sweep of the play, there are defined moments when Klimt discusses his childhood and upbringing, and the sequences could be rendered more naturally.
But that is a small gripe in what is otherwise an original, thought-provoking work, one that I am more impressed with as the days pass and I contemplate it further.
Reviewed by Peter Thomas Ricci
Presented through August 14 by by the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-404-7336 or by going to http://www.greenhousetheater.org/.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com