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St. Louis by Sarah Boslaugh

Kokoschka: A Love Story

Also see Sarah's review of A Thousand Cranes

Kokoschka
Lisa Sullivan and Lee Osorio
There are a lot of good ideas in Kokoschka: A Love Story, the new play by Henry Schvey presented at the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre at Washington University in Saint Louis. Some of the greatest names in early twentieth-century European culture appear as characters, and the subject matter is no less than the mysteries of creation and love. The author clearly loves this period and is extremely knowledgeable about it, and moments of the play have real dramatic impact. But the dramatic moments are buried in an avalanche of expository information and an overly complicated chronological structure, and the play often seems at war with itself as it switches awkwardly between styles of presentation.

The story concerns the Austrian painter Oskar Kokoschka, who had an affair with Alma Mahler which ended unhappily. He responds by enlisting in the Austrian army and is so severely wounded in battle that he is reported as having died, but in fact he recovers after a lengthy convalescence. During his convalescence, Kokoschka remains obsessed with Alma, who has in the meantime married architect Walter Gropius and given birth to his child. Kokoschka's obsession is such that it interferes with his artistic work.

Unable to possess the real Alma, Kokoschka has a life-size and anatomically correct replica of her created by a dollmaker. Your lurid thoughts are right on target: according to this play, Kokoschka used what he calls his "silent woman" for the same purpose that men purchase inflatable dolls at Dr. John's Love Shop. However, Kokoschka also treats the doll like a human being, taking it to the opera and engaging it in earnest tea time conversations, until he destroys it in a fit of passion. Or does he? In the final scene, after an apparently recovered Kokoschka returns from a vacation in North Africa, two facts are revealed: Kokoschka has resumed painting, and he has saved the pieces of the doll, which he re-assembles in his home. The final implication is that Alma remains both obsession and inspiration for Kokoschka, but he has learned the wisdom of keeping the obsession a personal matter and channeling the inspiration into his art.

If this sounds more than a bit odd, it is. Kokoschka's obsession with Alma is the central subject of this play, and the Alma-doll is the embodiment of that frustrated obsession, so the playwright will have to come up with a better presentation of this material. As currently presented, the doll acts primarily to move the audience to uncomfortable giggles and suppressed guffaws, and it doesn't help that the Alma-replica looks more like a sock monkey than the product of a skilled dollmaker.

The quality of the student cast varies considerably, as would be expected in a university production. Unfortunately, several of the best performances are from actors cast in minor roles, while the leads are not completely up to their task. Elizabeth Neukirch is outstanding as Alma's lesbian admirer, who is the only character to call Alma by her true name: beautiful monster. Ian Pearson performs ably as the architect Adolf Loos. Sathya Sridharan appears in only a few scenes as the journalist Karl Kraus, but presents a fully realized character who is disarming in his unpretentiousness and delivers a high percentage of the play's intentionally humorous lines. Unfortunately, Lee Osorio as Oskar Kokoschka is in way over his head: he seems more suited to yelling and breaking things than he is to the play's quieter moments, and his performance is not helped by an almost ever-present smirk. Kaylin Boosalis, who plays Alma Mahler, is a beautiful actress and is most effective when posing as a figment of Kokoschka's imagination, or when displaying her cruelty to her admirers; when the plot requires her to show genuine emotion, her performance often seems forced.

The Hotchner stage is an intimate space, and the production team for Kokoschka makes the most of it. A multi-level set designed by Patrick Huber allows the central stage area to be anything from a World War I battlefield to a ballroom, and the raised areas are used in part to differentiate between Alma as a figment of Kokoschka's imagination and Alma the living woman. Slides of paintings are projected onto one of the back walls almost continuously, and they seemed to have been chosen in at least some cases to illuminate Kokoschka's frame of mind during the current action of the play. At the very least they help inform the audience who Kokoschka was and why they should care, an important point because had he not been an important artist and writer, his emotional problems would interest no one and this play would never have been written. The lighting design by Charles Chapman does an admirable job of differentiating different time periods and reality versus hallucination or imagination, both important considerations given the complex structure of this play.

I hope Dr. Schvey decides to revise his material; it covers a fascinating period in European artistic history, and all the potential is there to create a work which makes significant statements about creation, obsession and love. The most fascinating and original aspects of this play are its attempts to explore Kokoschka's inner world; the central European cultural travelogue, while interesting in its own right, does not work well with the more subjective sections of the play. It would not be the worst solution to rewrite Kokoschka as an expressionist play, and would be particularly appropriate since Kokoschka is considered one of the founders of expressionist drama.

Kokoschka: A Love Story played at the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre at Washington University in Saint Louis through February 11. The next Hotchner production will be civil disobedience by Carter Lewis, which will play February 23 through March 4. Ticket information is available through the Edison Theatre Box Office at 314-935-6543 or MetroTix at 314-534-1111, and tickets may be purchased online at http://www.metrotix.com.

Cast
Oskar Kokoschka: Lee Osorio
Alma Mahler: Kaylin Boosalis
Hulda: Lisa Sullivan
Hans Posse: Ted Drury
Lili Leiser: Elizabeth Neukirch
Karl Kraus: Sathya Sridharan
Adolf Loos: Ian Pearson
Hermine Moos: Luciana Bonifazi
Romana Kokoschka: Alexa Shoemaker

Director: William Whitaker
Scenic Designer: Patrick Huber
Costume Designer: Sally Dolembo
Properties Designer: Emily Frei
Lighting Designer: Charles Chapman
Sound Designer: Derek Dohler
Stage Manager: Sarah Mackowski


Photo: David Kilper/WUSTL Photo Services


-- Sarah Boslaugh

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