Posted by: strugglesome | May 30, 2010

Just Another Manic Sunday: The Arden Theater’s Sunday in the Park with George

“Artists are bizarre” intones a woman in a dress that has to outweigh her by at least twenty pounds. Unable to move at the command of her dictatorial lover, she stands stock still in the middle of a white room while a crowd of onlookers observes her torture silently. Is this a peep show at very specific kind of brothel? A pornographic image from an S/M magazine? No, it’s the opening scene of the Arden Theatre Company’s production of Steven Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George in which Dot, Georges Seurat’s fabricated lover, is sketched ad nauseum by her intense pointillist lover in the Parisian sun. Her parasol lifted high into the sky and her bustle in full force, Dot, played by the golden-voiced Kristine Fraelich, is both delighted and befuddled by Seurat, whose cold intensity and focus on his work will soon break their relationship in two and push Dot into the arms of a more considerate man as Seurat feverishly works to complete A Sunday Afternoon on the La Grande Jette, which would become one of his best known works. While Dot is desperate for Seurat to join the human race and take her out for a nice dinner every once in a while, Seurat, intensely and strongly played by veteran musical actor Jeffrey Coon, is consumed with his work, his paintings, his art, and the development of his new method. If I was a punning sort of person, I would comment that Seurat is more interested in dots then Dot, and despite her crooned entreaty that “There’s someone in this dress, Georges”, Seurat is more interested in the container then it’s contents. While Dot moves on with the neighborhood baker (he does make more dough), Seurat sinks deeper into his painting, covering his canvas with a universe of spots, as deaf to the cries of critics as his great-grandson George is conscious of them. The second act of the play jumps forward in time from turn-of-the-century Paris to present-day USA as George, a fictional descendant of Seurat and an artist himself, a creator as directionless as Georges is focused, as uncertain as Georges is sure. George can only find the sense of peace and purpose he has been searching out when he makes a journey to Paris, and standing where Seurat once found so much inspiration, the modern-day George is finally able to discover a sense of his true self as an artist. As Seurat declares to Dot “I am not hiding behind my canvas – I am living in it”. It takes George a good talking to from his grandmother (also played by Fraelich) a plane ride and a visit from a ghostly singing dead relative, but it seems that he, too, can begin to live in his art as the lights dim and the play draws to a close.

While the plot line of this play seems simple enough, the truth is that Sondheim’s musical is confusingly busy with themes and messages. This play works to address the issues of art, authenticity, relationships, critics, the passage of time, family, social dictates and personal integrity, and that’s all just within the first scene. Filled to bursting as this piece is with meaning, it’s hard to distinguish any one moment or line that actually lands. The classic Sondheim phrases stand out, of course, the deadpanned asides, the statements like “If you can know where you’re going, you’re gone” which manage to be deeply meaningful without actually meaning anything, all of the hallmarks of a solid musical are here. The problem is, however, the delivery. This play is just addressing too many issues, hitting to many notes, if you will, to make a decent harmony. This is not to say that this production itself is lacking. Well designed and thoughtfully produced, Terence Nolen and Jorge Cousineau as the production’s two co-evil geniuses have engineered a pitch-perfect environment in which this play can live. The set as white and pristine as a blank canvas transforms effortlessly from scene to scene and gives the audience the sense that even when the scene is set outside Seurat has never really left the studio, and as he fiendishly sketches the world around him it becomes clear that he is not really going outside, but in reality he’s bringing the outside in. The park and all the people in it become his creation, and as the pieces of the set slide in and out-of-place, re-inventing the space over and over again, the audience is struck by how well Nolen and Cousineau have created “”White. A blank page of canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities”, and then filled it with images worthy of the artist himself.

Some of the most exciting projections include the Chromolume, conceived by Cousineau with his wife and the show’s Choreographer, Niki. When the second act calls for the modern day artist, George, to exhibit an installation piece drawing from his great-grandfather’s own work, the Cousineau’s have taken that opportunity to expand on pointillism as an artistic style, creating a multi-screen projection in which the dots of paint on Seurat’s original piece fly off the canvas at breakneck speed, and the observer feels that they are showered in a mist of color and light. One can’t help but think as they watch that Seurat himself would have been pleased, those were, to be fair, his two obsessions. An equally exciting moment comes later in that same scene when Coon’s George is projected on four different slim rectangular screens, each “George” trying to placate and grovel at the feet of possible donors and fellow artists, while the real George runs around, singing exasperatedly about the difficulty of “Putting it Together”. Its moments like these that show is strongest, as the production itself deftly ties the lose threads of Sondheim’s work into a strong woven whole.

It must be said that the Arden Theatre Company has done a fantastic job creating this piece. The only downside is that the production is so strong it serves to highlight the weaknesses of the play. The ensemble is more than capable and flawlessly creates two sets of societies, the Paris of the 1890’s and the art world of today. The principles are well-chosen and are clearly working their hardest to bring some sense of build and story arc to the jumble of themes and images dancing across the stage.The entire play is truly well and cleanly executed, it’s just a pity the play itself is a bit of a mess. One wonders if Sondheim wouldn’t have been better served writing about another of Seurat’s masterpieces, The Models, which is housed right here in Philadelphia at the Barnes Foundation. It might have created a more salacious piece, and at the very least it would have afforded the women of the set the opportunity to lose the corset. Oh, well, everyone has their own opinion, and as Dot herself advises George at the end of the play, “Stop worrying if your vision is new. Let others make that decision- they usually do.”

If you want to make your own decision about this play, it’s running at the Arden Theatre through July 4th, and tickets are available here. Remember, Sondheim himself did tell us, art is difficult, and artists are bizarre. But then again, that’s rather why we like them, isn’t it?


  1. Thanks Leah, I love your stage blogs! Hopefully, this show will appear on Funsavers and we will go! I always felt this may be a better one act, do we really need that second act? Same with “Into the Woods” Throw Children will Listen somewhere in the first act and then you’ve got a tighter more elegant show….

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