Exquisite Corpse Company, a Brooklyn based integrated arts company of filmmakers, actors, playwrights, sculptors, dancers, and musicians, has pushed the envelope with their production on Governor’s Island of The Enchanted Realm of René Magritte. The production conceived and directed by Tess Howsam is a surreal dreamscape magnifying the life and times of René Magritte. It is imaginatively stylized and energetically performed (I saw it during NYC’s hottest day of the year). The multifaceted actors showed their mettle enduring the surreal conditions on that “one-of-a-kind” day which, I must say, added to the humor of the adventure of discovering all about the extraordinary painter René Magritte.
The play opens when the affected, pompous saleslady invites the audience inside to peruse Magritte’s home which is on sale after his father’s death. In New York City, where real estate sales have no governable seasons and you can break the ice into heady conversation with most city dwellers just by asking where their digs are and how they found them, this introductory trope is cleverly tailored to its audience. The theme of home sale is also fitting with the setting of Governor’s Island House #17 which The Exquisite Corpse Company has access to for the summer and aptly uses as the complete set for the production. Both the upstairs and the downstairs of the house are their canvas and stage upon which they design, paint, decorate and act the dreams, surreal mysteries and fantastical world of René Magritte.
It is there amongst the shrouds and cloud swirling atmosphere of the fog machine that we become initiated into another realm, that of Magritte’s imagination and psyche to understand that which shapes his art. And it is there where it is initially revealed to us obscure facets of this Belgian’s history as he attempts to swim out from under the obsessions of his angst-driven life with the help of the people most important to him: his wife Georgette, his mistress Sheila, his friend Paul, who becomes Georgette’s lover, and the ghosts of the past, chief among them his mother. And of course absurdly, there is a fish who serves as his conscience, his soul provocateur and a recurrent symbol in the play whose function and meaning is “what you will.”
As you follow the actors into various rooms in this house which is for sale, you understand that the house is a larger metaphor for Magritte’s history and consciousness. The rooms symbolize or evoke the disparate intellectual, physical, intimate soulish aspects of Magritte’s identity as he moves through key high points in his life: his meeting Georgette when they were children, and again surprisingly when they were older, the scene when she becomes his muse, their marriage, his encounter and attraction to Sheila which burgeons into a long-standing affair, the humorous beach scene when Georgette couples with Magritte’s friend Paul, and more.
The writers have fashioned the dialogue sometimes brilliantly, sometimes poetically, sometimes surrealistically to infer a form of truth in the dynamic of what happens during the events that are factually Magritte’s known history. These writing bridges fuel the scenes and altogether, the writing is quite excellent. Eight writers conceived and penned this production, and they managed to craft a humorous, always intriguing work and give grist to the actors who are also quite good, especially the lead actors who play Magritte, Georgette, and Magritte’s ghostly and insane mother who gives a bravura performance.
Some of the dialogue touches on Magritte’s philosophical underpinnings that he used to discuss his own art, always shimmying between comments about hard reality and what remains illusive in life, which is mostly everything. The concepts that Magritte expressed, i.e. the image is never the thing objectified by the artist, turned art critics on their ear in frustration. He wittily expressed the opaque forms of his work showing his deftness in remaining three steps ahead of his detractors and those who would “pin him down,” all of which occurred in portions of his career before he became one of the art world’s “darlings.”
There is a bit of this philosophical convolution in the play which is fun, as are the surprising elements which engage i.e. who will be the character to lead you into the next room-the scary and insane mother? Around every corner there is the unexpected which lurks and teases you and unfolds into an ingenious scene out of the Magritte files. And there even may be a spider that lands near, as you brush back against a wall to get out of “mother’s” way. After all, it is an older house uninhabited during the Governor’s Island wintertime, the perfect place for Magritte’s ghostly mom who drowned herself to “come in through the front porch window.”
Thanks to the irrepressible ingenuity of director Tess Howsam, this extravagant and rather mind-blowing play about Magritte, the production will entertain, delight and mystify you. And you will never be drolly bored to take out your phone and text your friends. Besides, Magritte’s mother, Regina (Blaire O’Leary), just might come after you. She is voraciously, wildly unpredictable, as Magritte (Max Henry Schloner), is attractive and alluringly intriguing, as Georgette (Anya Krawcheck), is adorably sweet, Paul (Danny Wilfred), is distractingly funny and the fish (Lee Collins), is a wise and slippery fellow. What a fun show!
The Enchanted Realm of René Magritte is on Governor’s Island, an enjoyable adventure in itself. It is at Nolan Park, House #17. Performances run from August 6th to September 25th on Saturdays and Sundays at 1:00 pm and at 4:00 pm. Read the ferry schedule before you go. Be aware that this is a non-traditional venue on Governor’s Island in the Nolan Park houses section, most of which do not have indoor plumbing. There are port-a-potties next door to the houses, and full service restrooms right when you disembark from the ferry. Take water with you, though it will not be the hottest day of the year. Above all, be prepared to be mystified, something which Magritte from the depths of a cloudy atmosphere floating above the house would heartily enjoy.