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'Impressions' brings work of Renoir, Degas, Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec to life

Michael Leeds has turned his art appreciation into a new play titled “Impressions,” which gets a world premiere in Wilton Manors July 21-Aug. 6 at the Abyss Stage.

“I wanted to go into their world,” Leeds recalls from his home in Boynton Beach. “I was just fantasizing of being in there, in the painting. Like with Monet, I remember ['Bain à la Grenouillere'], it’s just a ... cafe with boaters with their women. But it was all this revelry. I just wanted to be in these paintings.”

For the play, he has taken that idea and reversed it. The paintings, specifically the women in many of the more famous works from the impressionist period of the 19th century Parisian art scene, come to life. It’s the kind of daydreaming exercise that Ellen Wacher, who is giving “Impressions” a world premiere through her troupe Pigs Do Fly Productions, says she can really identify with.

“In my house right now I have [copies],” she says from her Hollywood home. “I’m looking at three [Edward] Hoppers right now. That’s from the Depression era, but he was heavily influenced by the impressionists. I would always look at them and put myself in the pictures. I would always do that with Renoir and Degas. I’ve done that all my life.”

But at the very beginning, Leeds’ muse was actually dancers.

“I was going to do a piece about ex-dancers,” he says. “So we did that ‘A Chorus Line’ thing where we kind of did a little workshop.” He and some friends, some of whom are in the play, “sat around talking about our lives and what dancing was to us. But I quickly found out that it was turning into ‘Turning Point, ‘ ‘Follies,’ ‘Chorus Line.’ I couldn’t bring anything original to it. But I started thinking about Degas and his dancers.”

And that’s when things started to click for Leeds — who is also a screenwriter (“The Simian Line” with Harry Connick Jr., William Hurt and Tyne Daly), choreographer (“End of Summer” with Jacqueline Bisset and Peter Weller) and Broadway writer/-(“Swinging on a Star”).

“I started thinking about going back and forth in time. And the women in their paintings. My impression of their impression. ‘Art is making people see what you see,’ I love that Degas quote.”

Even then, he was still surprised by one of the turns his play took five months ago when he wrote “Impressions.”

“I started to notice that it’s about women who have limited options,” Leeds continues. “Back then you could be a worker in a factory or you were completely dependent on a husband. It was limited and these women were survivors. That’s one of the things that was so new about [the impressionists}, they began to look at the working class as a subject to paint. They would go out and find them and paint them and do the moment. At the time it was all new. Degas, Renoir were in the bars, the baths. The hookers in bars and Toulouse-Lautrec.”

Wacher says that the play also fits in with the mission statement of Pigs Do Fly Productions, to promote and produce theater that “shows people over 50 doing interesting things with their lives,” she says. “The actresses are over 50. They’re living and doing something, being vital and God, are they good.”

Leeds adds that the women in the paintings give the cast — Patti Gardner, Barbara Sloan and Karen Stephens — some juicy roles.

“They are such vivid personalities...in the paintings,” says Leeds. “And the women are so different. For example in ‘A Dance at the Moulin Rouge’ there is an aristocratic women looking at a dancer...and in ‘La Goulue Entering the Moulin Rouge’ a woman is walking arm in arm with another. I made them so that woman is having an affair with her husband. It was very easy to have that kind of vivid personality with these women.”

Each of following paintings gets a scene in the play:

“At the Café-Concert: The Song of the Dog” by Edgar Degas

“Women Ironing” by Edgar Degas

“La Loge” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir and “In the Loge” by Mary Cassatt

“Portrait of Irma Brunner in a Black Hat” by Édouard Manet

“La Goulue Entering the Moulin Rouge” and “A Dance at the Moulin Rouge” by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

“In the Dance Hall” by Isaac Israëls

“The Absinthe Drinker” by Edgar Degas

“On the Terrace at Sèvres” by Marie Bracquemond

“Portraits in the Countryside” by Gustave Caillebotte

“The Waitress” by Édouard Manet

“Lady with Parasol” by Claude Monet

“Young Woman with Peonies” by Frédéric Bazille

“Two Ballet Dancers” by Edgar Degas

“Impressions” runs July 21-Aug. 6 at Abyss Stage, 2304 N. Dixie Highway, Wilton Manors. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 5 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $35. To order, call 866-811-4111 or go to PigsDoFlyProductions.com.

rhagwood@southflorida.com

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