With the world premiere of DC playwright David Kessler’s fictional memory play, Gwen & Ida: The Object is of No Importance, Nu Sass & Uncle Funsy present an enlightening window into the lives and conjured intersections of two overlooked creative talents: Welsh painter and early 20th-century artistic muse for the male gaze Gwen John (1876-1939), and mid-20th century English-American film star and take-no-nonsense cinema/television director, Ida Lupino (1918-1995).
The two women defied the conventions of their day. They both paid the consequences for being “stubborn or strong” as a line of dialogue suggests. Playwright Kessler and Nu Sass are out to right that wrong.
Kessler has penned a crafty 90 minutes of imaginative fantasy for Gwen & Ida: The Object is of No Importance. With a skilled cast, the earnest Nu Sass production, ably directed by Lynn Sharp Spears, expands what is known about the two pioneers.
The setting for Kessler’s Gwen & Ida is the late 1940s in the Warner Brothers Hollywood offices. Ida Lupino, under contract to Warner Brothers as an actor, wants to direct a major film. She is meeting with Jack Warner, the studio head, making a pitch to get the green light. It is a moment in time when women did not do such things. It was a totally male-dominated world. The film she has in mind is a life story of neglected, enigmatic painter Gwen John.
The pitch is not going so well. Warner is hungry for a sandwich and more sex in the ideas Lupino pitches about John. After all, John had been thought to be the mistress of famous artistic men in her youth. Warner was also not much of a cat lover, as John was. As the meeting between Lupino and Warner is about to break up, an apparition appears–or maybe not. In a meet-cute moment, it is John crossing time and death making herself a solid, vital presence. What’s more, she has plenty of personal opinions about the detailed facts about herself that Lupino has been pitching and will continue to pitch to Warner.
As the production progresses with Lupino as an interlocutor, bits and pieces of John’s personal life come into greater focus, especially her struggles to be recognized as an artist in her own right. John has been overshadowed by her painter brother. Her time as muse, model, and much younger lover of Auguste Rodin, the famous French sculptor, has ended. Attempts at intimate connections with others, both men and women, have been rebuffed. Her world becomes less outward; more one of faith, caring for her cats and paintings that few would see. Her mantra, “reality can’t be captured,” is a link to the play’s subtitle The Object is of No Importance. For John, painting is color, line, texture. Little does the John character say about those sitting as subjects for her artist’s gaze.
John is ably portrayed by Aubri O’Connor. She gives a performance with the steely spine of self-protection. Of someone tied-up from the inside with good reason. Of secrets still hidden away. Of a past that is to be locked away from view. Even when interacting with the show’s other characters, O’Connor projects a defensive sheen, even when verbally pouncing on others’ faux-pas.
As Lupino, Rebecca Ellis is a lively, outgoing “modern” presence. Ellis is warmly gregarious in her portrayal. Even when her less than positive attributes are noted, she hesitates for only a moment, and then takes off on her journey forward. But, as Kessler has written Gwen & Ida, her role is as a bridge and the provocateur to bring John’s life story into view.
Matty Griffith as Jack Warner is all expressive lively “charm” with eyes sparkling and witty rejoinders, mostly of the sharp emotive four-letter variety. His facial expressions and physical demeanor give the production its most comic moment even as he is mostly a sitting figure during the production. There are moments when the women characters cut him off that are sharply accomplished with nifty lighting cues by Helen Garcia-Alton.
Bridgid Burge’s set design is minimal, to provide for several dozen audience members in the intimate upstairs performance venue at Caos in F. The set provides for three small play areas that are mostly unadorned except for one movie poster. Burge also is the costume designer. For the John character, the attire is a modest style that hides the character under layers of muted-color cloth. The Lupino character wears a fitted, tailored suit reminiscent of the 1940s. Sound designer Charles Lasky has selected the recognizable musical tracks from the Warner Brothers Casablanca (1941) as pre-show music.
I would be remiss if I did not mention that Gwen and Ida has script and production values that left me a bit unsatisfied. There are a number of fast-moving snippets about John, including about her relationship to those who did her wrong, that could be enhanced. There is a bold trip to walk across Europe that could have been explored with more stage time. The “why” for John‘s deeper later-life dive into faith would provide even more complexity to the character. As for the Lupino character, the show ends with a rushed listicle of Lupino’s major television directing accomplishments (shows that younger audience members may have much less familiarity with than Boomer audiences). At 90 swift minutes, a few added details would not need to add that much time to the one-act production.
Yet, Gwen and Ida: The Object of No Importance is a noteworthy accomplishment even if viewed as a work in progress. It brings needed attention to two female artistic pioneers, Gwen John and Ida Lupino, who paved the way for others to follow.
Running Time: About 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Gwen & Ida: The Object is of No Importance presented by Nu Sass Productions and Uncle Funsy plays through June 29, 2019, at Caos On F (upstairs), 923 F St NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call (315) 783-6650 or go online.