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Secrets Kept 

Alive with ideas, Firehouse's latest still leaves a lot of questions.

click to enlarge art46_theater_mdme_bath_100.jpg

Acclaimed playwright Israel Horovitz's latest show at the Firehouse Theatre, "The Secret of Mme. Bonnard's Bath," is very much a sum of its parts. Spanning time periods and straddling centuries, three actors fearlessly play a total of 11 characters.

It's obvious from the opening, a dark stage with only a screen projecting a constellation of stars, that Horovitz is out to express some familiar themes — life, love, art and immortality — in a new manner.

Pierre Bonnard — an artist active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as a member of the avant-garde movement — painted his wife nearly 400 times. Horovitz's interpretation of this act is a cornerstone of the play. The painting that sparks the story is "Young Women in the Garden," in which both his lover, Renée Monchaty, and his wife, Marthe Bonnard, appear. As the play unfolds, so does the complexity behind the paintings and Bonnard's character.

The unique stage design combines mannequins in costume and screen projections to effectively blur the edges between reality and fiction. The narrator anchors the viewer in the present, underscoring the timeless nature of art. These elements combined make the audience another character as viewer: Are we reading our own lives into the paintings and the portrayals on the stage?

As the play unfolds, it becomes apparent it's not about Bonnard's love of his wife — the jury is still out on whether he was exploring her form over time or whether he was simply an obsessive-compulsive with a sadistic streak — but rather his indecisive manner toward facing reality and the tragedy caused by his indecision. What is exact is his painting; his life, not so much.

Scott Wichmann, fresh off of Firehouse's previous one-man show, "I Am My Own Wife," uses his quick-change ability to play a varied cast of characters — a student, an art dealer, a security guard and a father — and is exciting to watch.

Jennifer Massey, playing a student, a wife, a tragic lover and model, as well as narrating (with a nude scene to boot), is tirelessly emotionally charged and entertaining.

Rusty Wilson as Bonnard is stiff and lacking in depth, but is the still point in this turning universe of emotions and a revolving door of characters. Fortunately, the quick pacing of the production and the themes of obsession, love and betrayal are so strong the characters seem to bounce off one another.

While intriguing and engrossing to see these complex ideas played out on the stage, something gets lost in the translation. Though director Kenneth Cahall does a great job balancing the drama and the philosophy, the ideas presented are stronger than the character sketches we see on the stage. It's like a French film with different thoughts and philosophies loosely hung together.

Framed by the narrator, "The Secret of Mme. Bonnard's Bath" is a scattering of small monologues with each character rhetorically asking huge questions about life and love: "Is death God's way out of love?" is just one question Bonnard poses. While the play is alive with ideas, emotion and humor, it is also as scattered as the constellation of stars projected on the screen. S

"The Secret of Mme. Bonnard's Bath" runs Thursday to Saturday (and some Sundays) through Nov. 25 at the Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad St. Tickets are $10-$20. Call (800) 595-4TIX or go to www.firehousetheatre.org.

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