Upon entering, you find yourself amid a vast and fascinating display of multiple self portraits by Rembrandt at various stages of his life, implications that one man in his time plays many parts. These and an equally rich array of other ideas are on exhibit at UNO Theatre in The Guard, Jessica Dickey’s constantly thought-provoking exploration of the realities of immortality. Of death, if you will, but without morbidity. In a space devoid of darkness, Dickey casts many lights. And superb student performances bring it all to life.
From that first moment, director Cindy Melby Phaneuf displays intelligence and perception. She has Henry, a museum guard illuminate, with a flashlight, the portraits suspended in space and you’re already set to contemplate a multiplicity of perspectives.
In four scenes and 80 or so minutes, Dickey delves into what seems less like a story and more like a frame to brilliantly exhibit much to ponder.
Henry plus museum guards Dodger and Jonny keep watch over a gallery that houses Rembrandt’s famed “Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer.” Dodger is a new hire, a street artist as he calls himself, i.e., he paints graffiti on public walls.
Henry, Dodger and a visiting art student, Madeline, cross a boundary into forbidden space by touching the painting. This leads to a scene with Rembrandt himself contemplating its creation and reflecting on the limitations of his work and the finite frame of his life, discussing that and much more with his son Titus and his mistress/maid Jenny.
This leads to Homer separately addressing us, reflecting on his life and work…especially how his epic poems are meant to heard, not read.
Finally Henry spends time with Simon, his dying husband, also a poet.
Dickey inventively fills in the spaces with many imaginative cross-references, tying together time. You’ll find them. And the display of well-written, perceptive reflections on art, life and death keep coming in many dimensions, some full of charming humor. They, too, are there for you to discover and admire at your own pace.
It does take a while for the play to get to the heart of what Dickey wants to say. The initial museum scene meanders, almost as if the people in it need something dramatic to stimulate them beyond discussing such mundane things as guard duties or taking seriously Madeline’s momentary physical weakness.
Aaron David Wrigley and Michael Juarez stand out as Dodger and Homer. Wrigley brims with personality while Juarez makes Homer’s self-revelatory monologue a kind of masterpiece. Plus Andy Prescott’s Homer stays genuinely sincere and sweet.
Credit should also go to Melby Phaneuf for eliciting these well-realized, professional quality performances. Plus Steven L. Williams’ wonderful museum setting makes a visit even more worth your time and attention. Further, UNO Theatre dramaturg Lucas Pérez-Leahy offers an excellent program book essay about the cascade of thoughts this play may provoke.
Dickey gained much attention with her play The Amish Project, a fictional exploration of real events in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County when a gunman killed Amish schoolgirls. he community forgave him and embraced his grieving family. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Nickel_Mines_School_shooting.
She also wrote Row After Row, a comedy about Civil War re-enactors, and Charles Ives Take Me Home. She’s also an actress. www.jessicadickey.
In the script Homer observes that with age comes wisdom and understanding, but by the time you acquire them, you’re almost dead. Dickey is still rather young, only in her late 30s, but you’ll discover how many trenchant insights she already has.
The Guard continues through Mar. 4, UNO Theatre, Weber Fine Arts Building, 6001 Dodge Street. Weds.-Sat. 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $5-$16. UNO students: free. http://www.unomaha.edu/college-of-communication-fine-arts-and-media/theatre-productions