Passion à la O'Keeffe
Before Women Who Love Too Much and Codependent No More, there was Georgia O'Keeffe and her watercolors. Characteristically dressed in a long black sweater, O'Keeffe peers out at the audience from the dimly lit stage of the Hollywood Boulevard Theatre. "Watercolors are tricky," she observes in Lucinda McDermott's O'Keeffe! "When placed too close together, they blend too much and disappear. When placed too far apart, they grow distant and no longer complement one another." She is speaking of her relationship with Alfred Stieglitz, a monumental figure in modern photography. In his famous studio, "291" -- which O'Keeffe called "a church of art" -- Stieglitz exhibited the work of artists like Rodin and Picasso for the first time in the United States. He was the first to show the work of African-American photographers as something other than "anthropological" and the first to discover the young talent of Georgia O'Keeffe. Stieglitz and O'Keeffe remained together until his death, and the relationship more than any other marked her life. While their marriage was predictably passionate and stormy, they were not beset by tragedy like some other artistic couples -- Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.
The imprint O'Keeffe left on the world was her luscious, sensual art. Some say it is too pretty, too feminine, but her highly personal use of color and form was original for its time and continues to be distinctly O'Keeffe. And an important factor in her art was her relationship with Stieglitz. Undeniably O'Keeffe's life is interesting because she was a famous painter who had a passionate love affair with one of the most important photographers of our time, but what makes the play O'Keeffe! compelling is O'Keeffe herself, not the events of her life. The theater's intimate setting and a wonderfully written script transform the roles of woman, painter, and lover into lenses through which we see not the woman, painter, or lover but Georgia O'Keeffe the person.
Directed by Roberto Prestigiacomo and starring Bethany Prestigiacomo (his wife), this one-woman show is a drama of solitude, a drama of the self, which is provocative to a contemporary audience. There is a pioneering spirit at the foundation of American culture, something that insists, "I must prove that I can survive on my own." From Thoreau on Walden Pond and Emerson in his "Self-Reliance" to the intangible frontiers of the Internet, this obsession with independence and self-sufficiency marks American culture. Georgia O'Keeffe embodies that spirit at its purest and most unpretentious. With her fundamental need to be alone and her passion for painting, O'Keeffe's character is strikingly well suited to a solo performance, and Hollywood Boulevard Theatre is the perfect venue. Three sections of only five or six rows each surround a starkly decorated set. Small and intimate, it is the quintessential stage.
O'Keeffe's art has been viewed as the soul of femininity. The first time he saw her drawings, Stieglitz exclaimed, "Finally, a woman on paper." Postmodernists have deconstructed the relationship of O'Keeffe and Stieglitz as the male "maker" marking, dominating, and ultimately defiling his female counterpart.
But playgoers see a pacing, outraged woman who storms, "How dare you assume I am some ethereal thing that feeds on clouds for sustenance when what I really like is beefsteak raw!" Ironically O'Keeffe as a woman was as undomesticated as her art was feminine, and this one-person play reveals the rich contrast between her art and her distaste for the traditional role of housewife and husband's keeper. She also had the uncanny ability to be in love and to be alone. She says of her relationship with Stieglitz: "He is more necessary to me than anyone I've ever met, but I don't feel the need to be with him."
The more one comes to know the persona of O'Keeffe, the greater the certainty grows that her flowers are not just femininity. They are thoughts blooming, strong emotions rising through the green fuse of the stem. O'Keeffe scratched at the earth's surface and pulled out dead animals' bones. She held these up to her landscapes and looked through the cracks and gaps like a photographer through a lens. "For six weeks I have painted the evening sky through the hole in that pelvis," she tells the audience. Lines like that lend a new dimension and depth to the fiery sunsets that are now so famous. If one art form can inform us about another, it has done something more than entertain.
The beauty of this play truly lies in its script, much of which comes from O'Keeffe's prolific diaries, letters, and biographical materials. Listening to thoughts like "I hear music being written inside of me" or a sunset described as "the beautiful time of day when the earth burns," we know that McDermott has chosen well. The playwright's use of letter writing also keeps the drama moving, artfully revealing O'Keeffe in her relationships with others. One noticeable flaw in the script, however, is the premise that the O'Keeffe character somehow needs the audience. To help her vindicate herself as an artist, possibly? To hash out her past? It's never stated outright. There is even an acknowledgment at the beginning that this is a play and that we are the audience as she says to us: "Perhaps that's why I find myself in front of an audience; perhaps I need something from you." Luckily this ghost theme is abandoned, but it doesn't serve enough purpose to be included at all. I saw it as a superficial, unnecessary rationale for a one-woman play.
Passion is a composite of many emotions in full force. In McDermott's portrait of Georgia O'Keeffe, that force is fed by joy, wonder, frustration, anger, and pride. Bethany Prestigiacomo, who seems to know her character, moves in the direction of these emotions, yet she never quite achieves the complex portrayal for which we are hoping. At times sheer volume and tantrums appear where a subtle, controlled approach would have been more captivating. Because it is a one-woman show, O'Keeffe! demands an extraordinary physical presence and a subtle emotional range. Prestigiacomo brings stamina and an engaging zeal to the role, but her limited range gives O'Keeffe a recklessness that seems inauthentic to her character.
At the end of the play, which is supposed to represent the end of O'Keeffe's life, we find her onstage gently caressing a long-stemmed pink rose (the kind of gesture that always forebodes an unhealthy dose of sentimentality). She is reflecting on her relationship with Stieglitz: Did she give too much of herself? Should she have left him for someone with whom she could have had a baby? and so on. In a forced-sounding attempt to tie things up, the character concludes, "Take care of that little thing you both have -- but keep a little for yourself." It is difficult to imagine a person who felt most at home in the broad, empty desert making such a corny remark.
It takes passion for a character and passion for the stage to present a woman's life and believe in its intrinsic worth enough to strip down the surroundings to the bare minimum. It takes guts to reduce a play to one actor. Hats off to Hollywood Boulevard Theatre for offering theatergoers something searching and personal in a world of shallow, high-budget productions.
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