‘Dear Master’ makes uneven trip from page to stage
Lily Janiak, SF Chronicle, September 9th, 2016
“Dear Master,” which opened Thursday, Sept. 8, at the Aurora, imposes heavy constraints on the actors playing its two characters.
George Sand (Kimberly King) and Gustave Flaubert (Michael Ray Wisely), the 19th century French novelists, communicate only through letters. (The two authors were avid pen pals in real life, and playwright Dorothy Bryant uses both translations of their actual correspondence and her own words that imagine what might lie between and beyond the lines of her source material.)
In Joy Carlin’s direction, the actors look at each other, but they never touch nor cross to the other’s side of the stage. Set designer Annie Smart demarcates whose half of the small stage is whose with a zigzag dividing line in the floor tile. The performers also spend a lot of time seated at their letter-writing desks or sprawled on chaise longues. Even when they move, they’re still restricted by the beautiful but billowing overcoats of Anna R. Oliver’s costume design. At times, Bryant’s script bogs down the proceedings, like when the authors spend pages complaining about their physical ailments, troublesome relatives or writer’s block. (Flaubert often spent five or more years on a novel.)
As a result, the show often feels desultory and static, even as the pair have lively, inspired debates about whether to portray the world optimistically or cynically in their literature, how to deal with critics and whether and how to have faith in humanity in the face of war.
“Dear Master” celebrates intellectual, artistic friendship, with a vision of Flaubert and Sand as incisive yet tender in their debates. Generosity and affection underlie every exchange, but so passionate are these intellectuals about their beliefs that each rebuke stings afresh. In a world where political discussions often devolve into nasty name-calling, “Dear Master” offers a refreshing template for argument, for how to vehemently disagree with an idea while still cherishing its promoter.
“Dear Master” also puts forward gender politics that still feel radical, even though the Aurora’s founders first produced the show in 1991. (To open its 25th anniversary season, the company is returning to the play that motivated its launch.) In 2016, it’s still rare to find stories that allow a man and a woman to maintain a strictly platonic friendship. That Bryant bucks that trend is partly due to the characters’ advanced years and their age difference — Sand (whose real name was Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin) was 20 years Flaubert’s senior.
But it’s also due in some part to Sand’s proto-feminism: What men call love, she writes to Flaubert, “is the buying of young girls.” As that visionary thinker, King is stirring, just as strong when she cuts through the air with a righteous tirade as when she silently reacts to Wisely’s delivery of Flaubert’s letters.
She often maintains a determined but wistful smile, her joy in Flaubert’s successes and her sorrow at his struggles both ever threatening to brim her eyelids with tears. As she treads about her room, she knots her hands primly in back, but look closely, and you’ll see that that ladylike gesture is also a fist ready to pack a mean punch.
As Flaubert, Wisely is less sharp, his performance less theater than recitation. Although “Dear Master” is an epistolary drama, the lines need to feel like conversation that two friends are having in person, motivated by the fervent need to speak in the moment.
Otherwise, we’re just as well delving into Flaubert and Sand on the page as onstage.
Dear Master: By Dorothy Bryant. Directed by Joy Carlin. Through Oct. 2. 90 minutes. $32-$56. Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. (510) 843-4822.