Review: The Rembrandt (Steppenwolf Theatre)

| September 30, 2017

John Mahoney stars as Homer in The Rembrandt at Steppenwolf Theatre            


The Rembrandt

Written by Jessica Dickey 
Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
thru Nov 11  |  tix: $20-$104  |  more info
Check for half-price tickets    


Now extended thru November 11th

A reverent, nuanced ode to love, art, and art preservation


John Mahoney and Francis Guinan stars as Simon and Henry in The Rembrandt, Steppenwolf Theatre

Steppenwolf Theatre presents
The Rembrandt

Review by Catey Sullivan

There’s a gentleness to Jessica Dickey’s The Rembrandt that’s a bit deceptive. In the story of Henry, a museum guard, and Simon, his dying husband, Dickey offers a sweetly endearing portrait of lifelong affection and devotion. There’s a sharp edge of acerbic wit involved – mostly thanks to the arid humor of the dying man – but on the whole, The Rembrandt is a sweet depiction of the beautifully gleaming ties that bind the beloved. Well, sort of.

Francis Guinan and Gabriel Ruiz  star as Henry and Johnny in The Rembrandt, Steppenwolf TheatreAs Dickey’s time-traveling narrative unfolds, The Rembrandt flashes like a palette knife catching a sunbeam. Dickey goes beneath the surface of Simon and Henry’s relationship, revealing the sharpness beneath softness. And while the preciousness that Simon and Henry hold each other is never far from view, The Rembrandt is about far more than a relationship between two people.

The love story is as much about the reverence people have for art and history as it is about the reverence they have for each other. In The Rembrandt, Dickey explores the nature of things people choose to protect, savor and adore, be it a masterpiece by an old master or an ancient, epic poem. Henry has spent his career quite literally guarding things that society has deemed irreplaceable and worthy of preservation. Metaphorically, he represents the perpetual care that generation upon generation of humans have taken in preserving the things that give the world beauty, meaning and hope.

If that sounds a tad heavy-handed and obvious, rest assured it doesn’t play that way in Steppenwolf’s production. Director Hallie Gordon manages to bring out the emotion and the parallels that line The Rembrandt without becoming maudlin or overly sentimental. There’s bite and wit to the love stories on stage as they play out over a wonderfully dizzying time-scape that moves from present-day New York City to 1653 Europe to Rome, circa 800 B.C.

Dickey begins the story at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Henry (Francis Guinan) is gazing at Rembrandt’s “Aristotle with a Bust of Homer.” Henry has been a guard at the museum for decades, and attends to his responsibilities with a sacrosanct solemnity, viewing the art that surrounds him with worshipful fascination.

Francis Guinan and Ty Olwin star as Rembrandt and Titus in The Rembrandt, Steppenwolf TheatreJohn Mahoney stars as Homer in The Rembrandt, Steppenwolf Theatre Karen Rodriguez and Ty Olwin star as Madeline and Dodger in The Rembrandt, Steppenwolf TheatreFrancis Guinan stars as Rembrandt in The Rembrandt, Steppenwolf Theatre

On this particular day, he’s charged with training Dodger (Ty Olwin), a young newcomer with a Mohawk and, to Henry’s eyes anyway, a heretical attitude toward guarding the art. As training commences, Dodger and Henry are joined by Madeline (Karen Rodriguez), an art student assigned to copy the titular Rembrandt.

It turns out “Aristotle with a Bust of Homer” is a time machine as well as a masterpiece: In the second act, we’re transported to 1653, where Rembrandt (Guinan) is struggling with a patron’s request as his wife Henny (Rodriguez) and son Titus (Olwin) struggle to support the temperamental genius they both deeply love.

Art-as-time-machine returns, this time with an ancient vase hurtling the setting back to 800 B.C. Here, Homer (John Mahoney) ruminates on the power (and powerlessness) of poetry to change the world, and the legacy artists strive to create through their art. From Homer, Mahoney morphs into Henry’s husband Simon, bringing the action back to the present.

With a lesser cast or playwright, both the plot and the double-casting within it could come across as the sort of gimmick deployed by B-level historical fiction. That doesn’t happen here. Dickey plumbs what’s profound about art and humanity without lapsing into clichés or stunts. Gordon mines the dialogue to create characters that are both prickly and intensely empathetic. There’s compassion to all of them, but also utterly recognizable human failings.

Those flaws – messy, maddening, infuriating – provide much of the piece’s humor, and keep it from toppling into the land of goopy mawkishness. The ensemble’s collective prowess also forms a failsafe barrier that keeps The Rembrandt complex and unexpected.

As Henry, Guinan’s explication on why Rembrandt rarely used more than four colors (ochre, black, white and red) and on the mysteries within “Aristotle with a Bust of Homer” will make a you wish he was the docent for every museum you’ve ever visited. The tiny gestures indicating the meticulous care Henry bestows on the Met’s treasures also reveal the man’s potential for human love.

As Rembrandt, Guinan becomes more crass and temperamental, a family man with a short temper and an artist immensely frustrated with what he’s required to paint in order to keep the funding coming. (Listen for Rembrandt’s explanation of why he never uses blue if he can help it – it’s fascinating.)

Ty Olwin and Francis Guinan star as Titus and  Rembrandt in The Rembrandt, Steppenwolf TheatreFrancis Guinan stars as Henry in The Rembrandt at Steppenwolf Theatre Gabriel Ruiz stars as Johnny in The Rembrandt, Steppenwolf Theatre

Rodriguez delivers a layered portrayal of a young woman besieged by grief (in the Met scene) and (in the Rembrandt scene) as a wife whose devotion to her husband lives hand-in-hand with a spirit that won’t be dominated. Even when they’re not saying a word, both Rembrandt’s wife Henny and the student copyist Madeline are grounded in grit and substance.

As Homer, Mahoney has a dense, gently meandering monologue that waxes philosophical about art, life and their impact on each other. The gist of the passage could be the stuff of a breakroom “inspirational” poster – but the specifics and Mahoney’s nuanced delivery of them elevate the scene toward profundity. As Simon, he gives a deathbed scene that’s bracingly free of tear-jerking schmaltz.

Olwin’s Dodger has the truculent, headstrong attitude of a dissatisfied millennial whose brain has yet to catch up with the burgeoning yearnings of his heart. As Rembrandt’s 10-year-old son, Olwin gets both the innocence and the disarming sophistication of a precocious, prepubescent boy.

The action plays out on Regina Garcia’s graceful set, which elegantly glides between millennia with ease, each new era subtly referencing those that come before and after.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t know Rembrandt from Renoir, Manet from Monet. In its exploration of why art moves us – and moves us to take extraordinary measures to preserve it through eons – The Rembrandt unlocks the inner curator in everyone exploring the value of beauty, be it on canvas or clay or within the human spirit.

Rating: ★★★

The Rembrandt continues through October 22nd November 5th November 11th at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map), with performances Tuesdays 7:30pm, Wednesdays 2pm & 7:30pm, Thursdays and Fridays 7:30pm, Saturdays 3pm & 7:30pm, Sundays 3pm.  Tickets are $20-$104, and are available by phone (312-335-1650) or online through their website (check for availability of half-price tickets). More information at time: 90 minutes, no intermission)

Karen Rodriguez (Madeline), Francis Guinan (Henry) and Ty Olwin (Dodger) star in The Rembrandt

Photos by Michael Brosilow 




Francis Guinan (Henry, Rembrandt), Joe Dempsey (Henry, Rembrandt Oct. 24 – Nov. 5), John Mahoney (Homer, Simon), Ty Olwin (Dodger, Titus), Karen Rodriquez (Madeline, Henny), Gabriel Ruiz (Jonny, Martin).

Understudies: Jack DeCesare (Jonny, Martin, Dodger, Titus), Tina Munoz Pandya (Madeline, Henny), Charles Stransky (Homer, Simon).

behind the scenes

Hallie Gordon (director), Jenny Mannis (costume design), Ann G. Wrightson (lighting design), Elisheba Ittoop (sound design, original music), Regina Garcia (set design), Gigi Buffington (company vocal coach), Aaron Carter (artistic producer), JC Clementz (casting director), Laura D. Glenn (stage manager), Brian Maschka (asst. stage manager), Alex Stevens (asst. lighting design), Tom Pearl (director of production), Penny Lane Studios (wig design), Lacie Hexom (additional properties), Kristina Valada-Vlars (Princess Grace Fellow), Daniel Washalesky (research associate), Jacob Brown, Zac Schmitt, Issac Schoepp, Mark Vinson (additional carpentry), Vanessa Rundle (crew cover), Madi Bivins (stage management apprentice), Michael Brosilow (photos)

Francis Guinan stars as Henry in The Rembrandt, Steppenwolf Theatre Ty Olwin stars as Dodger in The Rembrandt, Steppenwolf Theatre


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Category: 2017 Reviews, Catey Sullivan, Extensions-Remounts, Steppenwolf

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