Entertaining, enlightening: Aurora Theatre’s ‘Dear Master’

By Emily S. Mendel, Berkeleyside, September 15th, 2016

George Sand (l. Kimberly King*) and Gustave Flaubert (r. Michael Ray Wisely*) converse about politics and family in Dear Master. Photo: David Allen
George Sand (l. Kimberly King) and Gustave Flaubert (r. Michael Ray Wisely) converse about politics and family in Dear Master. Photo: David Allen

Berkeley playwright Dorothy Bryant seemed delighted to be in the audience at the opening of Aurora Theatre’s 25th anniversary revival of her insightful two-person epistolary play, Dear Master, about famed 19th-century French authors George Sand and Gustave Flaubert. Dear Master is the salutation Flaubert used when writing to Sand, who was 17 years his senior.

It’s a shame that Barbara Oliver (d. 2013) could not have been in attendance on opening night, as she portrayed George Sand in the original 1991 production that she created with playwright Bryant. Arising out of that production, Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre was formed, with Oliver as its founding artistic director. In fact, the theatre company was named after Sand’s given name, AmantineLucile-Aurore Dupin. But this production of Dear Master must be reviewed on its own merits, without regard to the sentimentality of restaging the Aurora’s initial drama, or the stellar growth and development of the Aurora over the years.

The feminist, socialist and prolific novelist George Sand (1804-1876), lover of Frederic Chopin in her younger days, and the somber, depressive perfectionist writer Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880), best known for Madame Bovary, engaged in an active 13-year artistic correspondence. Using translations of their actual letters as well as her imagination, Bryant has recreated Sand and Flaubert, such that, by the end of the 90-minute one-act play, we feel we understand their lives, personalities, literary methods and creative demons.

The Aurora stage is effectively divided into two handsomely furnished studies, each complete with its own comfortable period furnishings (by Annie Smart). Kimberly King, as George Sand, and Michael Ray Wisely, as Gustave Flaubert, in lavish period costumes (by Anna R. Oliver), never venture into the middle of the stage, but often face each other as they write and read their letters aloud.

Despite Joy Carlin’s talented direction, it’s an artificial construct. But as we listen to the actors, the artifice recedes somewhat because we’re hearing the thoughts of two talented authors. Not all the letters are fascinating, however. The novelists’ more mundane family, health and money problems are interspersed with more noteworthy observations about Sand’s heady days guiding France’s political upheavals and Flaubert’s anxieties and premonitions during the Franco-Prussian War.

The actors have a difficult assignment. They are on stage throughout the play, and lack the direct interaction with each other that would naturalize their performances. They are left with recitations that are demanding to deliver. They animate their readings with body language and, at times, exaggerated facial expressions. From my vantage point in the West section, I saw more of King’s reactions to Wisely than the reverse, and found King’s expressions overly emotive. Wisely’s delivery seemed occasionally uneven.

Dear Master is the type of uncommon production we’ve come to expect from the Aurora. It’s filled with historical and literary interest, yet remains entertaining as well as enlightening. Congratulations to the Aurora on its 25th season. Here’s wishing you many more years of creative theatre.

Dear Master runs through Oct. 2, 2016. For information, extended performance dates and tickets, visit the Aurora Theatre online.

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