The first thing you notice about an SF Playhouse production is the phenomenal and detailed set. This was true even in their old, smaller location on Sutter St, but now on Post St with a bigger space, the sets are even more impressive, inviting you into the world of the play. For the world premiere of Lauren Gunderson’s play, “Bauer”, we find ourselves looking at a painter’s studio, covered in dust and disarray from disuse, and full of beige canvases rather than completed works.
The studio belongs to the eponymous Rudolf Bauer (Ron Guttman), a German painter of non-Objective art, who escaped Nazi persecution only to come to America and never paint again. He and his wife, Louise Bauer (Susi Damilano), are clothed in beige tones, fading into the background of the set, until a flash of colour, in the form of Hilla Rebay in a purple suit (Stacy Ross), shows up to shake things up and try to persuade Bauer to pick up a brush again.
The play is very much concerned with what would make a great painter stop painting. Even when he was imprisoned by the Nazis – which we flash back to in his head as the walls of the stage become dark, oppressive stone walls – for being an artist, he did not lose the will to paint; he traded cigarettes for writing utensils and surreptitiously made art to keep his spirit alive. But when Solomon R. Guggenheim sent Hilla, Rudolf’s former lover and curator, to rescue him from the Nazis, he struck a deal that would poison the creative well: Guggenheim was to be the sole owner of not only Bauer’s past works but any future pieces he might produce. Bauer began to feel like a commodity rather than like an artist out to create canvasses of self-expression, and so he hadn’t painted since.
When we meet him, it’s the 1950s and the war has ended, yet Bauer hasn’t moved forward and he’s very ill. He and his wife exchange too much expository dialogue in their acceptable but generally unnecessary German accents. They are awaiting the arrival of Hilla, who gets spoken of as the she-devil who destroyed Bauer’s career. It’s enough to catch the audience up on Bauer’s backstory and his importance in the artistic canon: Guggenheim was building a museum specifically for his paintings, but his years without producing something new would be enough to send his art into obscurity and relegate his works to the basement.
It’s when Hilla arrives that the production gets a jolt of energy. Although the script seems most interested in philosophizing about art – which drags the play down too frequently – what keeps the show compelling is the interplay between Rudolf and Hilla. There’s sexual tension, deep respect, and a whole lot of resentment, which gets displayed through crackling, often witty, dialogue. These two have a complicated history, and one of the production’s greatest pleasures is in deciphering the mixed emotions bubbling to the surface in each of them. That the action is confined to this one room, where Bauer should be painting but is instead too busy arguing, reminds us just how much Bauer is stuck in a rut, in a prison of his own making.
It’s not difficult to guess where the production is ultimately leading, but what is surprising is the maturity that all the characters show. Everyone, even Bauer’s wife who gets neglected once the feisty Hilla shows up, believes in the power of art and of its importance above all, even when difficult personal sacrifice is involved. It’s partly that Bauer is a genius so his art is key to his identity. Although Hilla’s career also stands to benefit if Bauer produces new work, it’s their admiration and respect for Bauer’s work that makes these women willing to rise above petty jealousies and old wounds. They just might just be able to coax him back into doing what he loves best.
The production runs until Saturday April 19. Get tickets here.