The Heist Project
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 4, 2005
The Heist Project begins with the audience being ushered into a large open room—a portion, we're told, of Isabella Stewart Gardner's museum. Though Mrs. Gardner died in 1924, she's here with us now, to guide us through our tour of some of her treasured art objects. Following her around the space—abetted by some friendly lights that helpfully shine brightly on our next destination—we encounter some paintings: a few Rembrandts, a Vermeer, a Manet, some Degas, and a Shang Dynasty ku (or beaker) over 2,000 years old.
What's particularly distinctive about these artworks is that they are represented here by original, new works of art—installations, really—that comment on or interpret the originals (see the information above this review for the names of the artists who contributed these pieces); and incorporated within each of these installations, the subjects of the paintings come to life, offering their takes on the works they're contained in: on the nature of ephemera and memory, and of art itself.
So Rembrandt's A Lady and a Gentleman in Black are seen squabbling about a theatrical event that they've been collaborating on; the anxious student in Vermeer's The Concert frets about being able to transcend performance to create art just for herself; and a writer experiencing a metaphorical Storm on the Sea of Galilee (after Rembrandt's painting, here) tries to work through being blocked. In one of my favorite sequences, a distracted gentleman rises from bed pondering the whereabouts of Degas's Program for an artistic soiree, noting—profoundly, I thought—that just such a souvenir is the only tangible evidence we have of a performance, when all is said and done: the only real "proof" that we were actually there to witness it. And in another choice vignette, Rembrandt's matchbook-sized Self Portrait argues with its creator about life, art, and the universe.
The Chinese ku even says a few words, about how under-appreciated it usually feels. (Paintings get all the attention, it tells us.)
After our journey through Mrs. Gardner's collection is complete, we are sent to a second area, where we see a film about the demise of a Jersey City landmark, 111 First Street, a haven for contemporary artists of all stripes, now torn down to make way for city redevelopment. Again, the question of what lingers in memory when art is experienced—and created—comes to the fore.
Finally, the evening wraps up with a re-enactment—extremely well-staged by the Project's director, Jack Halpin—of the theft of the art objects we've just spent time with. This actually happened, in 1990; it remains an unsolved mystery. (More here.)
The linkage is clear: whoever stole Mrs. Gardner's treasures is as culpable, in terms of denying future generations the pleasures and joys and opportunities that all great art provides, as the grinch who stole 111 First Street.
The Heist Project is breathtakingly ambitious and splendidly inventive. All of the artists involved—the visual artists who created and designed the installations; the writers; the actors; the filmmakers—are to be commended for engaging our imagination and intellect with such acuity. Kudos to the young New Jersey theatre company Art House Productions and its Producing Artistic Director Christine Goodman for dreaming this up and executing it so excitingly.
I will offer one piece of constructive commentary, which is that I would have liked to be able to spend more time with the art installations on my own, at my own pace, as my random curiosity led me around the "gallery"—as it stands, it's hard to get close enough to each of the installations and really study them in detail. (This would probably require (a) more physical room, and (b) actors to continuously perform their roles several times during the evening; I'm not sure how feasible this idea is, but it might be interesting to try out in any future incarnation of this piece.)
That thought notwithstanding, The Heist Project is a spectacular example of theatrical invention. It augurs well for Art House, whose future work I will eagerly await. It's just sad that, after this cycle of performances is over, this exquisite and genuinely innovative piece of theatre will fade, as its subjects would be the first to remind us, into the fleeting wisp of memory.