"The Portrait" Review- Greenhouse Theater Center and The Neapolitans give us a portrait of artist Gustav Klimt

“The Portrait”, a one-actor play and world premiere is currently in production at The Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln, through August 14th, as part of the theater’s “Solo Celebration!” series. For 8 months, audiences will be treated to a wealth of “powerful and provocative plays”. “The Portrait”, written and directed by Susan Padveen, co-produced with The Neopolitans, and starring Cameron Pfiffner, purports to portray a day in the life of celebrated Austrian painter Gustav Klimt (1862-1918). Klimt, whose father was a goldsmith, is best known for his Japanese-inspired and gold leaf encrusted portraits, particularly of women, and it is his love of women and his portraiture that drives this production.

Cameron Pfiffner in "The Portrait"

The stagecraft, particularly the lighting, is conceptually intriguing. Examples of Klimt’s portraits are projected large on the back of the set, while multi-colored confetti-like shards of light embellish the typically spare artist’s studio, thanks to scenic designer Jacqueline Penrod, lighting designer Benjamin White, media designer Ben Lenz and stage management designer Jamie Crothers. However, some of these effects unfortunately miss their mark, as the faces of the paintings are repeatedly cut in half by the woodwork at the back of the stage. Further, other points of stagecraft are just plain silly, such as a dead stuffed mouse and unseen yowling cats.

Cameron Pfiffner as Gustav Klimt

The apparent premise of the artist’s life, that art must be created in a state of freedom, is unfortunately conceived and portrayed simply as freedom from marriage and/or the freedom to attempt a casual and gross seduction of the engaged society lady he is supposed to be interviewing as a much-needed portrait prospect. The production is divided into two conceits- Klimt alternatively turns from reading lovelorn letters to the absent “Emilia”, his lost love- and then addresses the unseen woman in the studio with clearly less than ardently returned results.

"The Portrait" at Greenhouse Theater Center

While history shows Klimt was an accomplished womanizer, and his works were initially reviled by the burghers of the day as “pornographic”, the idea that the extremely sophisticated and wealthy women he painted would fall for banal and oddly sexless overtures is laughable. The play, clearly designed to showcase Klimt’s legendary strong and attractive person and “free thinker” mindset instead devolves into a one-note show.There is no doubt that Pfiffner is a talented actor, and the writing is cogent and clever. It is the overly emphasized double-headed diatribe that causes this portrayal to descend into caricature. Klimt comes across as a constantly snacking, continually liquor imbibing, clumsy and feline-obsessed narcissist- he even inexplicably dons a costume and breaks into a bawdy operatic solo from “Rigoletto”.

Cameron Pfiffner sings an aria as Gustav Klimt in "The Portrait"

Gustav Klimt, whose paintings are truly magnificent and now rival at auction the works of Van Gogh, was one of the rare artists who became famous and sought-after while still alive, unlike Van Gogh, who sold only one painting in his lifetime. He was one of the most prominent members of the great Vienna Secession movement, whose goal was to provide exhibitions for unconventional young artists. He created murals, architectural designs, landscapes, objets d’art, and worked on public commissions until the criticism began and he took the bold move of refusing commissions rather than change his style. From an impoverished family, he took care of his relations and acknowledged and provided for his children- illegitimate though they were. And to be fair, some of these facts of his life do emerge in this play, which is witty and basically historically accurate. It simply needs a refocus, a rewrite, and/or some editing to give the audience a fuller and fairer portrait.

Cameron Pfiffner as artist Gustav Klimt, in

For tickets to “The Portrait” and the other great shows at Greenhouse, go to the Greenhousetheatre website.

 

 Photos courtesy of Johnny Knight

 

 

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