13 Oct Review: Georgia O'Keeffe's story brilliantly told in 'Hanging Georgia'

By Pat Craig
Correspondent
Posted: 10/10/2011 05:23:50 PM PDT

“Hanging Georgia,” a new play about the fiery relationship between painter Georgia O’Keeffe and photographer Alfred Stieglitz, roils and explodes across the stage like a Texas lightning storm.

Sharmon J. Hillfinger’s play — getting its world premiere by Oakland’s TheatreFirst and the BootStrap Theatre Foundation of San Francisco — blends dialogue, music (by Joan McMillen) and stylized movement to tell the story of the two artists who, in their own ways, helped define mid-20th century art.

Stieglitz (Michael Storm) played a major role in bringing photography into the fine arts category and was a champion and dealer of contemporary art. O’Keeffe (Paz Pardo) was a painter and feminist who bristled at the term “woman artist” and was able, by the sheer force of her talent (and Stieglitz’s aggressive promotion), to move into the highest level of art’s mainstream.

Stieglitz was O’Keeffe’s mentor and tormentor; he fell desperately in love with her, leaving his wife and eventually marrying the artist in what became a union pockmarked with his numerous affairs.

O’Keeffe, too, was romantically adventurous, having affairs with both men and women. Although she lived into her 90s, the artist was fragile and suffered physical ailments as well as bouts of depression and other mental troubles throughout her life.

Stieglitz and O’Keeffe met in 1916 when her friend Anita Pollitzer (Maryssa Wanlass) took some of her drawings to his 291 gallery in New York.Stieglitz championed O’Keeffe’s work through the years, including the 1920s, when her famous paintings of flowers in large scale were deemed by critics to be more sexual than botanical.

None of O’Keeffe’s paintings are shown during the production. The companies planned to feature projections of paintings from her earliest work and those inspired by the Southwest, where she lived during the later years of her life. But O’Keeffe’s estate refused permission to use the images, and TheatreFirst and BootStrap used the snub to give the play an added bit of theatricality and whimsy by employing empty frames.

That spirit of innovation is what makes the show work so well, along with near-choreographic direction by Jake Margolin and an excellent cast of actors who perform all sorts of tasks onstage, from handling sound effects to representing a huge number of characters. Storm and Pardo play Stieglitz and O’Keeffe throughout, but the other cast members — Nick Allen, Bear Capron, Roy Landaverde, Claire Slattery, Juliet Strong and Wanlass — perform more than a dozen characters throughout the piece.

Some characters are wonderfully wrought by both the playwright and the actors, including Allen as photographer Paul Strand, Capron as critic Paul Rosenfeld, Slattery as arts patron Mabel Dodge and Wanlass as Rebecca Strand, Paul’s wife and frequent photography subject. The story unfolds on a set by Martin Flynn that incorporates ladders, shelves, a few assorted objects and the picture frames to cover several decades in the lives of Stieglitz and O’Keeffe in this brilliantly told tale.

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