By D. A. Blackburn
I’ve said it before, and I will surely say it again: Adapting history to the stage can be a very delicate affair. This is never more true than when it’s presented in the form of a one-man (or woman) bio-play. Such works require an engaging, intriguing, colorful character, and a performer capable of holding an audience firmly, with an intense intimacy. With their production of Lanie Robertson’s “Woman Before a Glass,” Performance Network Theatre certainly provides this latter element with Broadway star Naz Edwards and much more, but the script comes up a little short.
“Woman” is a portrait of heiress and art collector Peggy Guggenheim, a woman deeply affected by history, romance and, most importantly, modern art. She was, after all, a Jew living in Europe during the rise of the Nazis, daughter of a man dead before his time for the sinking of the Titanic, a twice-married seductress known for her promiscuity, and a prodigious collector and champion of artists and artistic styles on the cutting edge. She ran in exciting circles (at least, now, they seem exciting), lived in enchanting places (Paris, Venice, New York), surrounded herself with beauty and worked diligently to leave the world a legacy wholly her own.
This sounds like the makings of an engaging bio-play, you say? Well, you’re right — to a point. The problem is that Robertson’s single act script is a drag — essentially, an hour and 20 minute crawl, focused heavily on artistic name-dropping and not nearly enough on the emotion created by the monumental events of Guggenheim’s life. While they are discussed, they aren’t relived on the stage. And if you think that the intrigue this character provides is enough to overcome a pedantic script, I suggest you speak with the woman in the row behind me, who took to snoring about 20 minutes in on opening night.
But with all that said, there is a lot to applaud in the Network’s production.
Edwards, particularly, deserves credit for a fantastic performance. Her voicing of the character — a haughty European English which cleverly slides into rough and brash New Yorker at just the right moments — is a delight. So too is her ability to navigate the Italian and French, thrown in for color, with the ease of a linguist. She’s also very capable of delivering the humor of the work, and in the few moments when real, heart-wrenching emotion does boil up to the surface, Edwards’ performance is potent.
Malcolm Tulip’s direction makes good use of the stage and does much to keep the work moving forward despite Robertson’s lumbering script.
Moreover, the company has done an excellent job with the show’s design elements.
Monika Essen’s sets have an interesting modern art appeal to them. They are simple, but eye catching. The stage’s raised floor takes on the appearance of abstract sculpture. The structures crafted to display paintings have unique lines, and Essen’s reproductions of paintings, themselves, are a feast for the eye. Her costumes and properties, too, are a nice fit to the production. Suzi Regan’s sound design and Mary Cole’s lighting also serve the work well.
Performance Network has made the most of “Woman Before a Glass,” but sadly, it fails to draw an audience in. Or perhaps, it’s just that the play is truly like its most prominent theme, modern art: an artistic expression not bound by the usual conventions.
‘Woman Before a Glass’
Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor. Thursday-Sunday through Sep. 5. $25-$41. 734-663-0681. http://www.performancenetwork.org