What makes artwork in museums so special? Why do the white walls and spotlighting demand reverence from the viewer? Why do we protect these works of art with so many guards and who are the people that choose to protect them? The Rembrandt by Jessica Dickey is a discussion on the ways artistry affects the way we love, grieve, and cherish the important things in life.
The delivery is not perfect – circumstances in which these topics are discussed require logical leaps that detract from the message on hand. However, the depth and nuance of the discussions paired with strong acting and well timed levity redeem the, at times, confusing settings. The Rembrandt is a production that capitalizes on the complexity of its post-modern themes to deliver a thought provoking and entertaining experience that will leave you questioning how art has impacted your own life.
The story opens on museum guards as they open up the gallery for the day. They train a rebellious new hire, sign in and set up a fresh out of art school copyist, and take artistic inventory of the room they are opening. So far, so mundane. These humdrum activities foster conversations between the guards and the painter, starting with introductions to their personal lives which eventually lead to discussions about museums and art in the abstract. Differences in opinion become heated arguments. In a turn of events, a guard, the new hire, and the painter reach a consensus that they should touch the very art they were hired to protect, which transports the audience back in time. The production then follows a series of scenes that jump between the 17th century art studio of the titular Rembrandt, a monologue from the ancient poet Homer, and finally back to the modern day to wrap up the aftermath of the first scene.
The Rembrandt does a fantastic job of discussing complex themes but remembers not to take itself too seriously. It would have been incredibly easy for these abstract topics to become mentally burdensome to listen to for the entirety of the play. The diversity of the characters create interesting character foils which give rise to conversations that feel like a verbal fencing matches; the discussion of the themes take place in these thoughtful interactions and are paired with shrewd wordplay to keep the conversations from becoming too grandiose. Despite the time-jumping nature of the show, you will become invested in the stories and messages told by each character and fully understand where they are coming from before the next scene change. This would not be possible without deft acting from the cast which is solid through and through. Standout performances, though, come from John Mahoney and Francis Guinan, who deliver a devastatingly emotional yet comical finale which is a clear highlight of the show.
The writing is razor sharp and the acting is skillful, but the inclusion of the time jumping is an element that is never as fleshed out as the other facets of the play. Despite clever nods to the other scenes in both the writing and the stage design (an oriental vase prop carryover, a transplant line from a previous scene, etc.), it never becomes clear as to why the time jumping needs to occur in the first place. It was perhaps introduced to develop a thematic idea on the perseverance of art, but this theme seems to take backseat to the other topics and stories which are much more polished. This takes attention away from the strengths of the show as the audience grapples with re-familiarizing themselves with the different settings.
Even if the delivery is a tad confusing, the themes of The Rembrandt are well worth exploring. Paired with a fantastic cast and sharp writing, the production skillfully approaches abstract concepts in an entertaining way.
Review by Ryan Moore
The Rembrandt continues at Steppenwolf Theatre through November 5th. More information here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreInChicago's Review Round-Up.