Painter Jamie Wyeth decides to paint a portrait of famed ballet dancer, Rudolf Nureyev. What begins as an opportunity for both men to obtain what benefits he can from the other evolves into a lifetime friendship. If only Wyeth can unlock the means of painting Nureyev’s Eyes by David Rush and currently playing at the Blue Barn Theatre.
Rush has written an elegant script that is beautiful in its simplicity. This is a story of friendship. But the simple story contains profound depth as the friendship between Wyeth and Nureyev grows. Over the course of the play both men slowly peel off their layers, revealing more and more of themselves to the other. Rush’s words perfectly capture the essence of the mercurial Nureyev and the more laid back Wyeth with a real and natural conversational tone. It’s sad. It’s charming. It’s witty. It’s dark. It’s light. In short, it has all of the elements for a strong and compelling story.
Darin Anthony unlocks the full potential of Rush’s words with a stunning piece of direction. I often forgot I was watching a play as the conversation between his two actors was so believable. The conversations sparked with a vitality as the two performers run the whole gamut of friendship when butting heads due to each being “artist mad”, sharing meaningful talks over brandy, and revealing parts of themselves that they would prefer to remain hidden. The staging is absolutely magnificent especially with the constant motion of Nureyev who said he could not sit still for a portrait. Anthony leads his actors to pristine performances chock full of nuance and skill.
Sam Woods excels as Jamie Wyeth. What I found especially compelling about Woods’ performance is that he portrays Wyeth as an everyman. Despite being a descendant of a successful line of artists, Wyeth is still a regular guy, comfortable in torn jeans and a blue work shirt. That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t take immense pride in his work. He is fully aware of his talent and refuses to let the legendary Nureyev intrude on his domain. Woods’ Wyeth is also more than up to the challenge of keeping up with Nureyev’s intellect as he matches him riddle for riddle with a sly smile.
Woods’ calmness as Wyeth serves as a good counterbalance to the fiery Nureyev as he is able to shrug off his temper tantrums and earn his respect to even begin this project, let alone keep it alive for so many years. Some of the show’s best scenes include their ordinary conversations which serve the dual purpose of helping Wyeth get an idea as to how to paint Nureyev as well as expanding their bonds of friendship.
How do I best describe Jed Peterson’s turn as Rudolf Nureyev? I think the closest analogy I can find is to imagine putting a cork into Old Faithful and then watch as that mighty geyser surges against the cork, threatening to blow at any moment. Peterson has an energy that you can almost see and feel and it seems like he is barely able to keep it contained. Indeed, without the occasional release of a tantrum, a riddle, apple pie and ice cream, or dance, it would seem that Peterson’s Nureyev would literally blow up.
Peterson doesn’t play Nureyev. He IS Nureyev. Peterson perfectly captures the force of nature that was Nureyev. He is temperamental. He is fierce. He is cultured. He is smart. He is witty. He is driven. But in just the right moments, he can also be soft and peaceful. He’s also an amazing dancer.
Peterson paints a portrait of a man who is never truly happy due to his never being able to fully trust anyone and only truly feels free when he dances. Still his Nureyev opens up to Wyeth more than he has any other person, yet still doesn’t reveal all. Peterson’s best moments occur when his Nureyev lets down some of his guard and reveals some of his true self. His fears. His loves. His humanity.
The technical elements of the show were just as strong as the storytelling. Kathy Voecks has designed a wonderful set consisting of pillars of sketches, charcoal drawings, and paintings. Craig Marsh’s sound design was top notch, especially his use of 70s rock numbers. Jill Anderson’s costuming was more than up to the task especially with the 70s mod fashion worn by Nureyev. Ernie Gubbels’ lighting was impressive. Most notable was his use of shadows which often made the two actors look like living Wyeth paintings and his use of disco lights during the first meeting between Wyeth and Nureyev.
This show is the essence of theatre. It’s just real. And it tells a touching story of friendship between two men from different cultures bound by the brotherhood of mad artistry.
Nureyev’s Eyes plays at the Blue Barn through April 15. Showtimes are 7:30pm Thurs-Sat and 2pm on Sundays. There are no performances on March 25 or April 1. Tickets cost $30 for adults and $25 for seniors (65+), students, and TAG members. For reservations, call 402-345-1576 or visit www.bluebarn.org. The Blue Barn is located at 1106 S 10 St in Omaha, NE.