I am officially besotted with Ida Lupino after seeing ‘Gwen & Ida: The Object Is of No Importance’; I was so intrigued by the character onstage (gracefully played with steely resolve by Rebecca Ellis), that I started reading—and learning–a great deal more about her. And now I am equally mesmerized by Gwen John, the painter that is the other half of this remarkable show.
. . . the dialogue as Gwen paints her pictures in words it breathtaking . . .
As produced by Nu Sass and Uncle Funsy, ‘Gwen & Ida: The Object Is of No Importance’ takes us into the minds and lives of two remarkable women who have not been given the due they deserve. Both were pioneers in artistic fields, both had to contend with the patriarchal impulses that classed women’s efforts as less than, and both worked very hard to create lives that suited themselves—an exhausting endeavor to contemplate.
Rebecca Ellis is Ida Lupino, slamming into a meeting with Warner (Matty Griffiths) in order to convince him to help fund a project she really wants to do—a biographical picture of Gwen John, a Welsh painter who also happened to be a muse and lover to Rodin. Tellingly, Jack is dismissive of Ida’s tale-spinning as she pitches her idea until she mentions the 16-year love affair—then he perks up. He picks apart everything she says, including Gwen John’s name (it’s too short—needs more syllables, never mind all the male artists and actors with two syllable names—women always need to be more), until what really comes across is the fact that Ida is forging her own path, even when being “punished” by the studio with suspensions and firings for not complying meekly with their dictates.
As she paints word pictures of her vision, the stage darkens around Jack and Gwen (Aubri O’Connor) steps out of her shed to meet Ida and there begins a thrilling dialogue as two women meet and share ideas and life. Gwen is not an easy woman—she is obsessive about her loves, sometimes to the point of frightening them; she is passionate about her vision; she cannot comprehend the contractual nature of the art world and its patronage system, but she is so very alive.
As Gwen, O’Connor is larger than life and you feel that particularly when she describes her painting process and what she sees. She is gloriously contradictive and determined to live as she needs to for the sake of her art. Even when describing what it is to pose for hours for Rodin until she is near crippled with pain, the words of the script paint such a picture of what it is to be so aware of one’s body, inside and out, that it feels near pornographic. Yet there is such a joy and innocence in these descriptions that you see the sacrifice and love needed for such total immersion in the moment. It is a bravura performance.
Ellis gives Ida the determination, sheathed in a lovely, yet earthly (hey, she can swear with the best of them when she needs to jolt Jack back into listening to her), lady-like presentation. As she makes her case, she is also trying to stay true to the painter and woman that Gwen was; this balancing act is most defined in Jack’s insistence on calling Gwen, “Gwendolyn John,” and Gwen’s increasingly testy snapping, “Gwen John.” Ida recognizes that she can’t deprive Gwen even of her name, and watching her navigate between the two of them is a lesson in itself. It is an impeccable performance.
Griffiths looks perfect as a 1950s movie mogul—concerned with the bottom line, waiting to be served his lunch, believing himself to be henpecked by Ida, yet forcing her into a position of supplication. He growls, he verbally jabs, he barks, he sees women only as commodities and useful only relative to men.
This is an intriguing show that explores not only art (the dialogue as Gwen paints her pictures in words it breathtaking) but women’s place in the world at large. Pretty much forgotten after her death, Gwen John was acknowledged by her brother as the better artist, yet how many have heard of her? Thanks to David S. Kessler, who wrote the play, and Lynn Sharp Spears, who directed this world premiere, the lucky audiences that see this show will be introduced.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
“Gwen & Ida: The Object Is of No Importance” runs through June 30, 2019, Nu Sass Productions, presented by Nu Sass and Uncle Funsy, at Caos on F, Washington, DC. For more information, please click here.