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Review: Every story tells a picture in 'Impressions'

Correspondent

When the multifaceted Michael Leeds started work on what became “Impressions,” he was going to write a piece about dancers.

But the world of dance figures only briefly into a play now getting its world premiere by Pigs Do Fly Productions at the Abyss Stage in Wilton Manors. Leeds, a Carbonell Award-winning playwright, director, screenwriter and choreographer, instead delves into the world of such impressionist painters as Edgar Degas, Claude Monet and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

But unlike fellow South Florida playwright Michael McKeever, whose 2006 play “The Impressionists” was about those once-radical 19th century painters who rebelled against the French artistic establishment, Leeds has chosen to focus on the subjects in an array of famous paintings.

In 13 short pieces running just 85 minutes, Leeds imaginatively explores the lives of women depicted in different impressionist paintings. The segments are by turns whimsical, amusing, touching and tragic, with many reflecting on the limited options for women in the late 1800s.

Most bring to life the subject or subjects from a single painting, but the third piece dramatically juxtaposes a vibrant beauty from American artist Mary Cassatt’s “In the Loge” against a woman wearing the black of mourning and staring through opera glasses in Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “La Loge.” That piece, about a much-betrayed wife and an experienced mistress, is one of the tragic ones.

Working on Jodi Dellaventura’s simple gallery set, where Kevin Black’s projections of impressionist masterpieces provide a changing array of art, three acclaimed South Florida performers — Barbara Sloan, Karen Stephens and Patti Gardner — portray the servants, aristocrats, workers and lovers Leeds conjures from the paintings.

Two elements help make “Impressions” visually striking: Costume designer Jerry Sturdefant largely re-creates the attire of the subjects in each artwork, and wig designer Kevin Raymond Hammond the hairstyles, making it seem as though the women have stepped out of the paintings; and lighting designer Ardean Landhuis sometimes bathes the scene in a mood-setting dappled light, suggesting the quality of light and even the brushstrokes in impressionist works. And sound designer David Hart links the pieces with music that evokes the varied facets of Parisian life.

In the strongest pieces, the actors transport the audience into the drama or comedy of a very particular world, as the best short plays do.

The best stuff in “Impressions” begins with a play based on Edgar Degas’ “Women Ironing,” in which Stephens plays a bold, norm-defying servant and Gardner a cautious one, and the talk turns to risk-taking and sex. Sloan is the woman in black in “La Loge,” Stephens the alluring mistress in “In the Loge,” a play roiling with jealousy and betrayal turned deadly.

Gardner is a photographer’s divalike subject in the play inspired by Édouard Manet’s “Portrait of Irma Brunner in a Black Hat,” imperious, scheming, determined to make an impression — and very surprising when she turns from her carefully posed position.

In the piece based on Dutch painter Isaac Israëls’ “In the Dance Hall,” Leeds imagines the two women dancing as not-so-secret lovers. But the story takes a surprising turn, as the confident Sloan and jittery Gardner discuss their options in the aftermath of a murder.

The most powerful play in “Impressions” is the one that brings the woman in Edgar Degas’ “The Absinthe Drinker” to life. Stephens plays a prostitute beaten down by her life, drink and tragedy. Her eyes still sparkle when she speaks of her little boy and her plans for his sixth birthday. Then, reality comes roaring back, derailing the woman’s absinthe-fueled musings.

Gardner is very funny as the beleaguered server depicted in Manet’s “The Waitress,” demonstrating that customers have always been demanding and savvy servers have always had their number.

Stephens becomes quite moving as a flower seller in the play inspired by Frédéric Bazille’s “Young Woman With Peonies.” Good at describing the qualities and feelings inspired by her fragrant wares, she reveals a sorrowful back story, then becomes the recipient of a customer’s generosity.

In a departure from the period setting of a dozen of Leeds’ pieces, the play based on Degas’ “Two Ballet Dancers” is a contemporary work featuring three older former ballerinas. It is this piece, the final one in “Impressions,” that most obviously meshes with Pigs Do Fly’s mission of producing work that highlights actors and the vital lives of people over 50.

Sloan, Gardner and Stephens portray ex-dancers rehearsing for a benefit that will aid former dancers. But life offstage soon intrudes, comically as Gardner has to phone her grandson for help in getting the little speaker supplying the rehearsal music to work, distressingly as Sloan reveals her husband’s life-altering anniversary surprise.

Then, the actors, all three with extensive dance experience, briefly turn into ballerinas, and it’s a beautiful, life-affirming thing.

The other pieces in “Impressions,” based on paintings by Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Monet, Marie Bracquemond and Gustave Caillebotte, have moments of conflict, comedy and loveliness, but alongside the stronger plays, they come off as mere sketches.

If Leeds, who also directed his play, continues working on those pieces, “Impressions” may well be worthy of future “exhibitions” on other stages.

“Impressions” runs through Aug. 6 at the Abyss Stage, 2034 N. Dixie Highway, in Wilton Manors. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday. Tickets cost $35. To order, call 866-811-4111 or go to PigsDoFlyProductions.com.

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