Bated Breath Theatre Company specializes in original works inspired by and in partnership with museum collections and exhibitions. However, this show about the fate of the “Haddie Weisenberg Collection” painted by artist Daniel Zeigler appears to be entirely fictional. Written and directed by Mara Lieberman, executive artistic director of the company since 2012, the play uses six actors in 43 different roles from artists both famous and imaginary, to auction house sales personnel and staff, to collectors to dancers, as well as having actors impersonate free standing sculptures. Ironically, 59E59 Theaters was at one time part of Christie’s Auction House and Theatre B was actually one of the firm’s galleries.
Beneath the Gavel follows one painting, “Haddie Without Shawl” from creation in Berlin in 1990 to its sale in New York in 2017 right before the audience who get to bid on it with paper money and paddles provided by the show. Along the way, we follow the career of artist Daniel Ziegler from Berlin to New York, watch a day in the life of an auction gallery, are taught the intricacies of auction etiquette, and meet dealers Leo Castelli and Larry Gagosian and their stable of artists including Roy Lichtenstein, Jackson Pollock, Wassily Kandinsky, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. We also follow the life of Germanic collector Haddie Weisenberg and eventually meet her granddaughter and heir Sarah who consigns the six paintings in the collection to a New York auction house. The production even provides a catalog describing the paintings and a web site.
Thomas Golebiewski’s clever unit set includes a white back wall which is used for streaming video, silhouettes and the creation of a huge painting by artist Daniel Zeigler. The presentation includes animation, dance, interactive events such as the three auctions plus other audience participation, art promos, an auction house board meeting, and a history of the contemporary art market. We hear some entertaining anecdotes as well as find out what pushes up the price of a painting. One scene take place on the subway, while using umbrellas lit from within, the cast also becomes the New York skyline.
The versatile cast is given a workout playing different roles in almost every scene. Constant in the performance is Debra Walsh’s elegant European Haddie Weisenberg, Corey Finzel’s committed and ambitious Daniel Zeigler, Missy Burmeister as high powered art auctioneer Tracey, Gabriel Aprea as professional auction house manager Geoffrey, and Moira O’Sullivan as eager auction house gopher and assistant Charlotte. Among other memorable roles are Aprea’s suave Leo Castelli, Walsh’s nonchalant Andy Warhol and Finzel’s hot-tempered Damien Hirst. Gail Fresia is responsible for the costumes for the 43 characters which quickly helps the actors shift roles. The lighting by Jen Rock aids in deftly changing the scenes for the many locales. The original choreography by Julia Verón, Burmeister and Aprea is more of a symbolic metaphor than an integral part of the show.
Beneath the Gavel is a fascinating and intimate look into the exotic world of Modern Art from the auction house to the artists who create the new work to the collectors with demands of their own. Its interactive nature makes this unique in its format. Unfortunately, not all of the theatrical devices and ideas work as well as they ought, but the inventive spirit is evident throughout. However, for those not acquainted with the workings of auctions and auction houses, this is an excellent and imaginative introduction. For those in the know, it may appear a bit simplistic though it remains an artistically avant-garde evening in the theater.
Beneath the Gavel (through April 9, 2017)
Bated Breath Theatre Company
Theater B, 59E59 Theatres, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.59E59.org
To preregister, visit http://www.haddieweisenberg.com/
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes with one intermission