From the dark a loon calls. Soon the sun rises on a center-stage rock outcropping, seemingly carved into the mountainsides surrounding Lake George. As the stage light warms over the top of the outcropping, Max (Noah Galvin) enters, camera and tripod in hand, ready to film with the lake and the mountains as his mise en scene. Melissa (Anne-Marie Cusson) enters, dressed in a long black-cat cloak, blood-red vest, and a gray-silver bushy hair wig with a big moustache and bushy black eyebrows, looking like the genetic splicing of Groucho Marx and Albert Einstein. “Digital media, 11th grade, final project, scene 1, take 1,” Max states for the camera. “My name is Alfred Stieglitz,” his husky-voiced mother, directed to stand in sort of half Groucho slouch, states for the camera downstage of the rock outcropping, “I am an American. Photography is my passion. The search for truth my obsession.” Max directs, mom redirects and acts, and his project begins, three days before it is due.
While the filming of a school project is an unlikely through-line for Adirondack Theatre Festival’s current production, it is oddly engaging. This is the world premiere of Filming O’Keeffe. ATF commissioned it from playwright Eric Lane and workshopped it last summer; it’s the first production of the homegrown ATF Founders’ Fund for New Work. Filming O’Keefe is also in support of the Hyde Collection’s current exhibition, Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George, and Eric Lane wrote the play at Yaddo in Saratoga. ATF founder Martha Banta, raised in the Lake George area, makes her return here after five years to direct the play, so this synchronicity springs organically from the riches of the Adirondacks. For fans of ATF, O’Keefe, her husband and fellow artist Alfred Stieglitz, or Lake George history, Filming O’Keeffe is a bounty, full of inspection of both Lake George and the artists as inspiration for art past, present, and future, historically and theatrically.
The hermeneutics—Max’s and Melissa’s frequent monologues offer multiple interpretations—of Stieglitz and O’Keeffe center the play, sharply shown in the evolving relationships between Max, his mother, his long-absent father, his even longer-absent grandfather Martin (Martin LaPlatney), and Max’s spunky girlfriend Lily (Jessica Brown). Using the trope of making a film about Stieglitz and O’Keeffe as artists in Lake George could have been dull, but playwright Lane makes rich use of the Max’s family life and the changing culture of Lake George to mirror the complicated relationship between Stieglitz and O’Keeffe, their art and Lake George; their inspirations and personas engage. While Lane brings out the contradictions in the more famous artists’ lives and creations, he makes them human. He makes his theatrical characters humorous by Max’s precocious intellect and talent teased out by a convoluted family life; his parents moved to Lake George inspired by Stieglitz and O’Keeffe’s art created here, and they live where the actual artists lived. Their fictional lives have echoes and reflections of those of the artists. Max grapples with his desire to create art, his budding sexuality—his scenes with Lily are as truthful as they are achingly amusing—and the revelations about his father’s death.
Bold, quirky, and intelligent, Filming O’Keeffe will engage and amaze on as many levels as an audience will allow. Stieglitz and O’Keeffe would smile upon it.