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'Bauer': brilliant new drama at S.F. Playhouse

A typical work by abstract painter Rudolf Bauer from his early period
A typical work by abstract painter Rudolf Bauer from his early periodCourtesy photo

San Francisco Playhouse world premiere, "Bauer"

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Not since "Sunday in the Park with George" have I seen a play about art and artists as fascinating and powerful as Lauren Gunderson's "Bauer."

The world premiere this weekend, commissioned and directed by San Francisco Playhouse (http://sfplayhouse.org/sfph) founder/artistic director Bill English, is fiction based on the real-life story of an artist, just as Sondheim's musical is about Georges Seurat and his "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte."

Rowland Weinstein (http://www.weinstein.com), whose gallery has an exhibit of Bauer's works, is the play's executive producer.

Rudolf Bauer, who died in 1953, had great fame and an improbably adventurous life, but he faded from the headlines long ago. If you go to see the play without knowing about the artist, you will learn a great deal of the story, but without having the unwanted experience of being at an art history lecture.

These are the basic facts behind "Bauer" - the German pioneer of nonrepresentational/nonobjective/abstract art shared his bold path with the likes of Piet Mondrian, Vasilly Kandinsky, and Paul Klee; he had significant influence on Jackson Pollock, William de Kooning, and many artists in the generation following the early 20th century.

Besides his own bold and memorable works, Bauer's contribution to modern art was his leading role in the groundbreaking Berlin art center, Der Sturm. From 1912 on, when he was 23, Bauer had solo shows and many activities at the center, later becoming a teacher there, along with Klee and other major artists of the era.

It was at Der Sturm, in 1917, that Bauer met Baroness Hilla Rebay von Ehrenwiesen, who became his lover, mentor, ferocious champion, and eventually deadly enemy. Bauer, along with his entire movement regarded as "decadent" by the rising fascist movement, was persecuted, and later imprisoned. As Rabay became Solomon Guggenheim's friend and most trusted curator, she had the funds to rescue Bauer and bring him to New York.

The story moves to the building of the Guggenheim Museum by Frank Lloyd Wright, with Rebay as art director and the opening of the world-famous circular building meant to feature Bauer's works.

Long before The Guggenheim's 1959 opening, a series of personal and legal clashes resulted in Rebay's firing, the intense battle between her and Bauer, the painter ending his career, and his entire oeuvre ending up in the basement of the museum, not a single painting exhibited in the museum designed to feature his art.

This is the point when the play begins, but the backstory - again - is presented as a suspenseful, integral part of the drama. None of the above or anything you may read about Bauer will be a spoiler because the play is about the relationships between three principals, dealing - still inconclusively - with reasons and motivation. It's all engrossing and thought-provoking.

English's direction and set design and the cast are magnificent. Ronald Guttman plays the title role, giving a completely convincing portrayal of the conflicted, frustrated, blocked artist at 64, but looking older. Guttman has a tremendous speaking voice: resonant, perfectly projected at all times.

The role of Baroness ("a minor German title") Rebay is terribly difficult because she was so intense and dominating that the character could come across as a caricature. Stacy Ross makes her believable, even without lending a character a false sense of warmth-under-the-ice. Ross' Rebay is formidable, scary, and understandably unhappy.

With all the complexities of those two, Louise Bauer, the painter's wife, is perhaps the most multilayered character in her deceptively prototypical hausfrau role. As portrayed by Susi Damilano, she has some powerful surprises in store.

Kudos again to this crackerjack of a small theater company for continued excellence and innovation.