BWW Review: FINDING MONA LISA at Actors' Playhouse
The Wittiest Art Lecture You'll Ever Attend
You think the Mona Lisa's smirking? Well, so do I. She's got that tight little smile because she's survived 450 years of slightly perverted adoration culminating in being whacked by a tossed rock. She was steamed in a French King's palace bath house and stolen from the Louvre and left in a dirty drawer for two years. And, whoopee, she became the look at me aphrodisiac for Napoleon. She also reduced by one the attendance at the Cleveland Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And she was forged and hung on the walls of the grandest of the dames in Manhattan. Then Jackie K talked the Louvre into lending her to Washington.
You think I'm making this up? Nope, but maybe playwright Michael McKeever did because he's the guy who put all this Mona dope into FINDING MONA LISA now showing at Actors' Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre. It is a world premiere.
McKeever, a more than prolific writer, with 27 produced plays, when questioned under a harsh white light said:
"Somewhere in the 1990's, I read about the Mona Lisa being stolen in 1911. I had no idea!
I was fascinated. So I did the research and found out all about it and the various theories surrounding it. I always thought it would be a good subject for a play. Then, about five years ago, I read that in 1962, Jackie Kennedy convinced Charles de Gaulle to "lend" America the Mona Lisa. (????) And he did!! WHAT?! Who knew??!!
After reading that, I read every book I could find on the Mona Lisa and found all of these wonderful different stories about her. I put them all together - and added my own particular spin to them - to tell the 500 year old story of this work of art. And that's how "Finding Mona Lisa" was born."
Irene Adjan, Daniel Capote, Anna Lise Jensen, Paul Louis, Chaz Mena, and Tom Wahl brilliantly play the 25 brilliantly written characters in the brilliant scenes in the 90 minute one act. A dialect coach's dream.
It's nice to keep a few secrets, so here's a rundown on just a little of what's going on upstairs in Actors' balcony theatre:
Spot lit Irene Adjan as art historian Dr. Lange dryly lectures on the technical aspects of the Mona Lisa. Its many layers of paint over the centuries and the absence of apparent brush strokes are detailed. She pauses and the spotlight hits Daniel Capote as Bolivian Ugo Ungaza dementedly describing his unrequited love for Mona, believing she smiles only for him. Thankfully he doesn't try to physically prove his passion beyond his admittance that in frustration it was he who flung the stone that chipped his love's delicious elbow. Dr. Lange drones the mantra 'It's just oil on wood'.
Tom Wahl is Kenneth, the White House aide tasked by Jackie Kennedy with cajoling Charles de Gaulle into lending her the Mona Lisa. His frustrations reach lava spilling levels as he deals with Collete, his French counterpart, the wonderfully funny Anna Lise Jensen. Her French accent will haunt your midnight dreams.
The nastily regal Paul Louis is the white robed King Francois I, who keeps the Mona Lisa dripping deep in his steam rooms beneath his palace and Chaz Mena is the Viscomte who has the temerity to suggest the Parisian unwashed might also enjoy her presence. Louis's royal head patting arrogance is well met with Mena's sniveling sycophancy. Daniel Capote is deadly man servant Patrice.
Since she was a child Ellen, (Irene Adjan) has dreamed of seeing the Mona Lisa in Paris. Husband Harry (Tom Wahl) has his cultural sights set on the Cleveland Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Using her, ahem, womanly wiles, Ellen persuades Harry to come to Paris with her, where he turns the City of Lights into the universe of whining. Luckily for Ellen, Harry gets the trots and she sets off for the Louvre alone. But this being Paris, she meets a handsome stranger, the suave Daniel Capote who immediately raises the old goose bumps in her lady parts. But she's a nice girl and gracefully refrains, thus adding a touch of sweetness to the evening.
Chaz Mena is the spit curled, strutting Napoleon, torn between his adoration of Mona and the available, gorgeous, slightly crazed hand maiden, Anna Lise Jensen. Napoleon, of course, ultimately surmounts the problem.
There are many more Mona secrets to be seen: the six forgeries scam, the theft from the Louvre, and of course, meeting the real life Mona.
FINDING MONA LISA is an informative, funny show, well up to Actors' Playhouse high standards. That said, a couple of production problems are bothering.
When you see a David Arisco show at Actors' you never notice the direction and that's good. The play's the thing not the fiddly little bits, but Gene Seyffer's simple set, four layered with desks and chairs and curves and angles seems an actors' hindrance rather than an easement. The almost constantly atmospheric (read dim) lighting by Eric Nelson is not an asset, although the few light changes are handled beautifully by stage manager Carl Waisanen.
Hoorays to Ellis Tillman for his many costumes and to properties designer Jodi Dellaventura.
Photo by George Schiavone