‘Habit of Art’ reveals power of plays 

click to enlarge The Habit of Art
  • From left, Donald Currie and John Fisher appear in Theatre Rhinoceros’ intriguing production of Alan Bennitt’s “The Habit of Art.”
“The Habit of Art,” by acclaimed British writer Alan Bennett (of “The History Boys” fame), is a bittersweet comedy and a play within a play. Like David Ives’ similarly structured “Venus in Fur,” currently at the American Conservatory Theater, the polished Bay Area premiere of “Habit of Art” at Theatre Rhinoceros offers an intriguing glimpse of how a play is formed — and much more.

In “The Habit of Art,” the internal play, called “Caliban’s Day,” posits a fictional meeting in 1972 between aging poet W.H. Auden (played with a wonderfully coarse, cranky yearning by Donald Currie) and composer Benjamin Britten (an appealing, vulnerable John Fisher).

In the external play, a cast is rehearsing “Caliban’s Day” with the most underappreciated of theater workers, the stage manager (a nurturing yet efficiently businesslike Tamar Cohn), standing in for the missing director and reading for a few absent actors.

The playwright (a convincingly fussy Michael DeMartini) hovers, making everyone uneasy.

In “Caliban’s Day,” Britten arrives at Auden’s house in Oxford. The famous pair, with opposing approaches to revealing their homosexuality to the public, haven’t seen each other in 25 years.

Struggling to create an opera based on Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice,” Britten seeks advice from his old friend. For his part, a past-his-prime and insecure Auden offers to write the libretto.

But the opera’s subject matter — an older man’s infatuation with a teenage boy — is fraught. Britten himself is a pederast.

Their meeting is interrupted by a rent boy (a blithe and matter-of-fact turn by Justin Lucas) that Auden has hired.

A biographer (Craig Souza) who has come to interview Auden breaks the fourth wall to serve as the narrator for “Caliban’s Day.”

Life and art intertwine as the actors continually interrupt the rehearsal. They question their roles (the actor who plays the biographer worries that he serves as a mere theatrical device) and object to some of the playwright’s, and the absent director’s, sillier ideas: an ugly mask and wig for Fitz (who’s playing Auden), talking furniture and even personified poetry and musical compositions.

They also argue over various elements of the script, including the dramaturgical significance of the rent boy.

Fisher directs with careful attention to both of the plays’ comic and poignant nuances, and he and his actors are adept at differentiating, and inhabiting, their two roles.

Bennett’s examination of the artist’s compulsion to create, and his empathy for the expendable non-artist as well, resonate deeply.


The Habit of Art

Presented by Theatre Rhinoceros

Where: Z Below, 470 Florida St., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; closes April 13

Tickets: $15 to $35

Contact: (866) 811-4111, www.therhino.org

About The Author

Jean Schiffman

Jean Schiffman

Jean Schiffman is a freelance arts writer specializing in theatre. Some of her short stories and personal essays have been published in newspapers and small literary magazines. She is an occasional book copy editor and also has a background in stage acting. Her book “The Working Actor’s Toolkit” was published... more
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