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Cesear’s Forum’s “Occupant,” the true or false history of sculptor Louise Nevelson

Cesear’s Forum’s “Occupant,” the true or false history of sculptor Louise Nevelson

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

Louise Nevelson, the subject of Edward Albee’s play, “Occupant,” now in production by Cesear’s Forum, may or may not be the person that is written about in the script.  The iconoclast artist, known for her monochromatic abstract expressionist sculptures, was an elusive figure.  Many of the accepted “facts” of her life have been proven to be untrue.  It matters not if Nevelson told the stories, or an art historian searched and found the information. No one knows exactly what is accurate.

Nevelson lived the “great lie theory.”  If you tell a lie over and over, after a while you can’t tell if it is the truth.

Who is better to probe into Nevelson’s life than Edward Albee, America’s greatest existentialist playwright, whose works are representative of the Absurdist school of writing.  Absurd, meaning “out of sync” in one sense, “ridiculous” in another.  Yes, Nevelson led a life that was eccentric, when compared to the norm, and her fanciful exploits make for a bizarre story.

Who was Louise Nevelson?  Only she knows, and as we find out, she’s not telling.  Or, is she?

Albee sets up the investigation in what appears to be a clear format.  An interviewer is probing into Nevelson’s life, asking her questions.  But, suddenly the interviewer informs us, “I never interviewed someone who was dead!” Yes, the woman we see before us, is dead!

As the interview proceeds, we find that Leah Berliawsky was born in Kiev, Russia, on September 23, 1899.  (Well, maybe.)  She and her Jewish parents were driven out of the country during a series of pogroms.  They eventually settled in Rockland, Maine, where her father became a fairly wealthy lumber and real estate tycoon. (Maybe.)  Leah, tall, beautiful and shy, according to her, “suffered many anti-Semitic experiences.”  She escaped from Rockland to New York, via what may have been an arranged marriage to Charles Nevelson, an older, unattractive, but wealthy New Yorker.

The stories of a life filled with lovers, expensive tastes, the Nevelsons losing much of their wealth, the birth of her unwanted son (she admits to being a “lousy” mother), her escape to Paris to attend art school, a return to New York, getting rejected by art reviewers and the buying public, finally making her breakthrough in the 1950s when museums began to buy her wooden sculptures, and her ultimate death in 1988.  She is recognized by many as one of America’s most innovative sculptors, but shunned by others as a “gimmick” artist.

Nevelson, always knew she was “special,” lived with the motto, “I am going to be my own special self.  I’m going to occupy that space if it kills me.”  This mantra kept her going when things looked bleak and life impossible.  Kept her going through suicide attempts, depression, and regrets.

The play is filled with droll humor.  And, as in many of Albee’s existentialistic theater creations, explores individual veracity, selective memory, and the process of self-fulfillment as he asks, “Why do we exist?”

The play’s title is taken from a real life happening.  Nevelson, near the end of her life, dying of lung cancer after being a chain smoker, was in the hospital, didn’t want visitors.  She had the sign on her door, which had been emblazoned with large letters spelling out her name, taken down and the word “Occupant” put up instead.  She was an eccentric to the end!

Julia Kolibab and George Roth are up to the challenge of performing the two-person, two-act, two-hour show, with great aplomb.  Roth chides, teases and challenges with a twinkle in his eye and sardonic and sarcastic vocal and physical tones.  Kolibab , wearing eccentric clothing and two pair of mink eyelashes, dominates the stage, fully capturing the very being of Nevelson.

Director Greg Cesear keeps the action rolling.  This is difficult as the script is a long duologue with little action.  He manages to retain the audience’s attention by keying in on the humor and playing up the exaggeration.

Scenic designer Laura Carlson Tarantowski creates a clever set which imitates the sculpture style of Nevelson.  Make sure you get an up close and view Tarantowski’s clever use of castaway products that form the basis of the set.

Kennedy Down Under is a perfect space for this intimate piece.

Capsule Judgement:  “Occupant” is one of those special plays and theatrical presentations that will be greatly appreciated by the serious theater-goer who likes to be exposed to a well-written, thinking person’s play, which gets a fine staging and interpretation.

“Occupant” runs through October 25 at 8 pm on Fridays and Saturdays and 3 pm for the Sunday performances at Cesear’s Forum, located in Kennedy’s Down Under, PlayhouseSquare.  The entrance to the theatre is off the lobby of the Ohio Theatre.  For information and reservations call 216-241-6000 or go to