Louise Schlegel and Blair Bowers in The Gallerist. Photograph by C. Stanley Photography.
The old adage says the eyes are the windows to the soul. Fengar Gael believes one might be better off peering into the depths of a painting.
The author of The Gallerist, currently playing in a world premiere production staged by Rorschach Theatre at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, is particularly interested in the souls of animals, both dead and alive. Her unnerving play meanders through multiple decades to explore the unique power a bestiary holds over a family and its descendants.
That menagerie is where Selena Featherstone (Louise Schlegel) has made the sudden and disturbing transition from beautiful social butterfly to whispered-about madwoman. Her cousin Laura (Blair Bowers), a would-be artist, has come to stay with her at the bequest of Selena’s mother, Vanessa, in the hopes that she can coax her out of this state. Vanessa (Sara Barker) believes her daughter to be possessed—not by a demon, but by the late family patriarch’s deceased pet monkey, Iago (one of the play’s many tongue-in-cheek Shakespeare references). Many years later, the fate of the Featherstones becomes entwined with the story of a Manhattan gallery owner (Scott McCormick) who’s poised to exhibit the long-lost paintings Laura made of the animal spirits that haunted Selena.
The story’s a little out there (and owes a debt to The Picture of Dorian Gray, which gets name-checked with a wink), but Gael has impressively woven together The Gallerist’s far-fetched premise, along with multiple intersecting timelines, to create an unconventional and suspenseful tale. Director Catherine Tripp’s production is further heightened by an impeccably cast ensemble of performers.
The showiest performance comes from Schlegel, who must transition on a dime from the shattered Selena to her vile and virile alter ego. The actress succumbs to skin-crawling fits and displays, but is equally skilled at capturing Selena’s more withdrawn, restrained moments—it’s fascinating to see her take in the actions and motivations of those surrounding her, digesting and calculating. She’s well matched by Bowers, who creates a warm and wholly believable Laura, a conflicted woman who is not without weaknesses of her own.
They’re complemented by a host of fine supporting actors. Sara Barker is dryly funny as the concerned and gently manipulative Vanessa, and is able to shave off years in an instant to play the gallerist’s bright, sexy love interest (though that part is underdeveloped by Gael). As gallerist Bertram Plover, Scott McCormick (who also plays Selena’s troubled father) is droll, haughty, and charming, while David Winkler brings some levity to the play in a smattering of parts, most memorably a pompous art critic who once dated Laura.
The Gallerist’s activity, whether it’s happening in the past, present, or both simultaneously, revolves around a versatile set made up of wire cages. Brian S. Allard’s lighting design heightens the play’s emotions, swelling to red during tense scenes or incorporating colored hues that stand in for Laura’s compelling paintings. The artwork is just one example of director Tripp having the restraint to withhold what’s best left to the audience’s imagination: the image of a painting with the power to trap the very essence of a creature’s soul.