By Sarah Downs
The word “Impressionism” brings to mind images of luminous color, shades of light and dark, and paint applied to canvas in swift brushstrokes. The visionary work of this Independent movement included some of the greatest names in painting, including Paul Cezanne, Claude Monet and Edgar Degas. They took art out of the studio and into the real world. Inspired by an exhibition of the work of Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt, in his play The Independents Christopher Ward tells the story — a story — of how Mary Cassatt came to join this select group. Ward has sculpted a quiet drama out of the translucent leaves of history. He brings both art and artists to life.
As testament to the quality of the actors and the nuance of the writing, conversational in its deceptive simplicity, The Independents captivates without epic drama. Ward explores the human emotional canvas with humor and restraint, which qualities follow through in his direction. Both Natasa Babic as Cassatt and André Herzegovitch as Degas inhabit their roles with a naturalism that softens the line between stage and audience.
With her expressive eyes and natural elegance, Babic portrays Cassatt with a combination of innocence and forthrightness that captures the experience of a woman painting in a man’s world. Cassatt often painted tender images of mothers and babies, a subject matter deemed proper for a woman. Then there were her insouciant, one might say seditious, portraits of growing children, whose individuality she celebrates. As an artist she walked the line between idealism and daring.
Herzegovitch captures Degas’ mercurial temperament in an outstanding performance. You cannot keep your eyes off him, as you try to guess which Degas he will be next — playful? cold? superior? aesthetic? truculent? As particularly evident in his gorgeous pastel drawings of dancers, Degas was a brilliant draftsman. And yet he layered his canvases with paint from darkest blacks to shades of glowing translucence. Go figure.
I would quibble with the pronunciation of some of the painters’ names, and I think “properly attired” makes more sense than “properly adorned” with reference to whether or not someone has enough clothing on, but then again, who cares? My only real problem with the show was the intermission. The complete break between two Acts whisked us out of Cassatt’s little studio in Paris and into harsh light, like an interrupted dream.
In the nuance of script and performance The Independents treads lightly in its interpretation of a friendship that lived by its own rules, particularly where Degas was concerned. The production follows suit, refraining from burdensome drama in its palette in lighting, set and costume design. Lights dimmed to a delicate pastel and period music, including the beautiful, spare mystery of Eric Satie’s “Les Gymnopidies” float the energy through small pauses between scenes.
The Independents casts a spell. In the guise of artistic inspiration Ward has written the story of two people, and in the guise of quiet drama he has invoked the magic of artistic inspiration. It starts and finishes in the same place, at the tip of the painter’s brush.