Gutsy George

Sunday in the Park with George, inspired by the life and art of George Seurat, is one of Stephen Sondheim's most ambitious pieces. Musicals rarely run much deeper than happy entertainment. But this 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning play about the lonely and obsessive nature of an artist's life is a moving exception.

As powerful as it is, the play is difficult to produce. The set is nothing less than a stage-sized, moving homage to Seurat's most famous painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Costumes are a Victorian mishmash of bustles, parasols and top hats, and the compelling music is dark, complicated and strange. The whole thing might be just beyond the capabilities of producer-director Phillip Duggins and his admirable band of Masquerade Theatre thespians. Though this production is riddled with missteps and slow moments, it's gutsy enough to make the evening worthwhile.

George (Luther Chakurian) starts the fictional story while standing at the edge of a stark white stage, artist pad and pencil in hand. He looks across the white expanse, then down to his pad, then out to the audience and begins to recount his artistic obsessions -- "design, composition, balance, light and harmony." As he talks, Amy Ross's inventive set begins to mutate. A richly painted tree descends from the rafters. Flaps open one by one along the side of the boxy stage, revealing a park's trees, ground, grass and water, all painted to mimic the technique developed by Seurat called pointillism. The finished effect is an impressive reminder of the painting.

Characters from Seurat's image slowly move into place: an old lady and her nurse, a young girl with her governess, two soldiers, ladies fishing, a wealthy couple, and most notably the beautiful dark-haired woman from the edge of the painting, who comes to fictional life in this play as Seurat's lover Dot (Laca Tines).

Played by Bernadette Peters on Broadway, Dot is a character intended to be as funny as her ironic name (which refers on some level to Seurat's obsession with dots of pure color). She's a little bit saucy. "If I could concentrate, I'd be in the follies," she sings. "I'd be in a cabaret." And while she's dressing she giggles and purrs, "The less I wear, the more comfortable I feel." This quick-witted, working-class woman teaches herself to read and write. She finds a fit husband after she realizes that no matter how much she loves George, he will always be an artist first and "Artists are bizarre," she says. "Fixed. Cold." She's his favorite model but soon discovers that "if you want bread and respect and attention ... modeling's no profession."

She's a wonderfully bright character who brings balance to the artful darkness of George. But Tines plays Dot with a slow, almost pouting, lazy lady-like reserve. The jokes, which are mostly a matter of delivery and timing, are lost in enormous gulfs of silence between lines. This character needs snap and sass and an almost crusty worldliness. "None of the others worked at night," she complains when George won't stop working. And the beautiful Tines is too upright, too careful and too molasses-slow to bring this role to life.

Chakurian, however, is potentially perfect as the brooding, obsessive George who can't go to the follies until he finishes painting a hat. One of the best songs of the evening is his "Finishing the Hat," where he reveals the alienation inherent to any artistic endeavor.

"Finishing the hat," he sings, "how you have to finish the hat. How you watch the rest of the world from a window while you finish the hat." Chakurian's voice is sweet and rich. His warm eyes and poet-good-looks and combed-back hair fit the period (though the glued-on beard looks silly enough to be distracting). Again, the pacing in his performance is too slow, and once again, the humor is too watered down. But Chakurian brings a heartaching truthfulness to the role that gets right to the heart of the musical's intent. This is a play about loneliness and art and passion.

Many of the smaller roles are well done. Sarah Wuensche is straight as a whalebone stay in playing the cold German governess who has an eye for her pretentious boss. As the two fighting girlfriends (both named Celeste), Allison Sumrall and Leticia Ochoa are charming.

Aaron Haggin's costumes are also impressive; they are colorful and lively and capture the period with an inventive resourcefulness required by a small budget.

The production would be best served by a shot of adrenaline. Everyone on stage seems to be moving and talking in a sort of slow motion that is at times frustrating to the point of being irritating. There is a great deal of potential in this play and in these performers, but the cast simply needs to get into high gear and do what they know how to do much faster.

Sunday in the Park with George runs through January 31 at Masquerade Theatre, 1537 North Shepherd, 861-7045. $10-$15.


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