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'Sunday' Painter

[whitespace] Sunday in the Park With George Right to the Point: Painter George Seurat's muse, Dot (Michelle Duffy), and fellow artist Jules (Earl D. Weaver) pose for a masterpiece.

Music clashes with ideas in 'Sunday in the Park'

By Heather Zimmerman

SHAKESPEARE asserted that all the world's a stage, but to 19th-century pointillist painter George Seurat it was a canvas. Seurat manipulated optical illusions, using specks of color placed next to each other to create other colors; red and yellow dots together would look like orange to the eye, and so on. In Sunday in the Park With George, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine examine the nature of art through the story of Seurat and the creation of his masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of La Grande Jatte. TheatreWorks kicks off its 30th anniversary season with a skilled and visually striking production of this unique work.

The first act is set in 19th-century France, where Seurat works on his future masterpiece as he struggles for recognition among his fellow artists and tries to keep his relationship with his mistress, Dot, from falling apart. The turmoil in Seurat's life is echoed on a larger scale by the disorderly, often confrontational scenes he witnesses on his visits to the park, where he sketches subjects for his painting--two girls arguing over a boyfriend, a child getting into mischief, etc. These characters and others are transformed into serene figures in Seurat's painting; only the vibrant palette exposes the true liveliness of this park. Much like his technique of creating color and shape from mere dots, in his portrayal of this park, Seurat creates order from chaos. And director Robert Kelley follows suit--this 1880s Parisian park teems with well-orchestrated confusion. The production itself swirls with gorgeous, barely contained color and light and is beautifully staged with sets and costumes in brilliant hues, often bathed in multicolored dappled light patterns that echo the dot brush strokes of pointillist paintings.

As Seurat and Dot, Michael Babin and Michelle Duffy have a wonderful tense chemistry that is palpable even when the characters are apart. Unfortunately, the second act, set 100 years later in the U.S and France, never comes close to matching the passionate energy established by the pair. In the latter half of the play, Seurat's great grandson, also an artist named George (also portrayed by Babin), struggles with the dilemma of patronage--he needs financial support to continue his work, but understandably balks at kowtowing to his sponsors. However, the contrast between the intelligent whimsy of the first act and the brooding commentary of the second is too great.

Additionally, the score works to the detriment of the second act. Sondheim's dissonant, decidedly modern musical style works better for the 19th-century portion of the play, echoing a departure from tradition in all the arts--including music--during that time. Although the tightly wound, repetitive melodies do reflect the insular attitude of the art world in both centuries, the music rarely deviates from these frantic little circular tunes, which grate by the middle of the second act and prove oddly counterproductive in a song such as "Move On" that champions change. Sunday in the Park With George is burgeoning with provocative ideas, but set to such limiting music, this journey to enlightenment seems a lot more arduous than necessary.

Sunday in the Park With George plays Tuesday at 7:30pm, Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm (plus July 3 and 10 at 2pm) and Sunday at 2 and 7pm through July 18 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St, Mountain View. Tickets are $27-$35. (650/903-6000)

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From the July 1-7, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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