You want the 411 on Mona Lisa? Who loved her so intensely he whacked her with a rock? Who brought her to the U.S.A? Which King hung her in his steam bath? Who made six forged copies for the Manhattan grand dames? How did Mona screw up Napoleon's love life? Who stole her and hid her in a drawer for two years? And who was she, this woman with the smile that stopped the world?
You want answers? More than prolific (27 produced plays to date) Renaissance man Michael McKeever has them. In the world premiere of his comedy, “Finding Mona Lisa” now playing at Actors' Playhouse at the Miracle Theater.
So here's a little treat, verbatim from McKeever:
“Somewhere in the 1990s, I read about the Mona Lisa being stolen in 1911. I had no idea! I was fascinated. So I did the research and found out all about it and the various theories surrounding it. I always thought it would be a good subject for a play. Then, about five years ago, I read that in 1962, Jackie Kennedy convinced Charles de Gaulle to "lend" America the Mona Lisa. (????) And he did!! WHAT?! Who knew??!!
After reading that, I read every book I could find on the Mona Lisa and found all of these wonderful different stories about her. I put them all together - and added my own particular spin to them - to tell the 500 year old story of this work of art. And that's how 'Finding Mona Lisa' was born."
This play first got a workshop at Lynn University as part of their New Play Series, around two or three years ago. Then it was workshopped at a theater in Phoenix, Ariz. Then a reading at Zoetic Stage. Over the course of the past two years I've developed it and cleaned it and added scenes. (I added a new character two weeks before we started rehearsal for this production.) l LOVE history, so this play was a blast to work on.”
Six actors play the pants off 25 characters from Mona's existence. Irene Adjan, Daniel Capote, Anna Lise Jensen, Paul Louis, Chaz Mena, and Tom Wahl take McKeever's brilliant writing and, accents flying, make the house howl.
The first few bars of Nat Cole's "Mona Lisa" bring the first scene with Adjan under one spotlight as Dr. Lange, art historian, calmly lecturing on how many layers of paint are on the portrait and how no brush strokes are evident. Under another spotlight Capote, as Bolivian Ugo Ungaza, goes delightfully crazy with his love for Mona, believing she smiles only for him, then heaving the rock when he realizes the truth. Dr. Lange drones the mantra, "It's just oil on wood."
Wahl is the fully frustrated Washington aide arranging the lending of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre to America. Colette is his French counterpart, a wonderfully funny Jensen whose French accent will make you pack your bags and fly to Paris tonight.
Louis is the white robed King Francois I, who keeps the Mona Lisa deep in his steam rooms beneath the palace and Mena is the Viscomte who has the temerity to suggest it be better shown to the people. Louis's royal arrogance is well met with Mena's sniveling sycophancy. Capote is deadly man servant Patrice.
Harry (Wahl) and Ellen (Adjan) are in Paris to see the painting. Harry would rather be in Cleveland at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but Ellen has wanted to visit the Louvre since she was a child, so Paris it is, thanks to Harry getting somewhat lucky. That doesn't stop him whining, however, as he develops the bathroom confining trots. So Ellen sets off to visit Mona alone. And meets a handsome stranger, the suave Capote. Fifties values hold true, however, and Ellen does the decent thing.
Mena is the spit curled, strutting Napoleon, torn between his adoration of Mona and the available, gorgeous, slightly crazed hand maiden, Jensen. Napoleon, of course, ultimately surmounts the problem.
And, of course, there's more in this scene-packed, 90 one act. The six forgeries scam, the theft from the Louvre, and finally the painting of the Mona Lisa.
When you see a show directed by David Arisco at Actors' you never notice the direction, and that's good. The play's the thing, not the fiddly little bits, and that brings up a couple of carps. Gene Seyffer's simple set is four layered with desks and chairs, and curves and angles, and it seems an actors' hindrance rather than an easement. The almost constantly atmospheric (read "dim") lighting by Eric Nelson is not an asset, although the few changes are handled beautifully by stage manager Carl Waisanen.
A big shout out to Ellis Tillman for his many costumes and to properties designer Jodi Dellaventura.
“Finding Mona Lisa” plays at Actors' Playhouse at the Miracle Theater through Aug. 13. 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables. 305-444-9293. www.actorsplayhouse.org