She was famous in her own lifetime for realistically capturing the likenesses of kings and queens. Michelangelo praised her technique.
Yet Sofonisba Anguissola remains an obscure Renaissance artist because she was a woman.
Callie Kimball’s two-act play, “Sofonisba” illuminates her life at the Spanish court of King Phillip II in a Theater at Monmouth production that premiered Friday at Cumston Hallin Monmouth. It was developed by the Cape Elizabeth playwright through a workshop at Portland Stage Company and Lark Play Development in New York City several years ago.
The Monmouth company launches a visually lush production that focuses on the artist’s friendship with the teenage Queen Isabel and Sofonisba’s insistence that she devote her life to art rather than a husband. While it may sound like a dull history lesson, the dialogue is funny, witty and intelligent.
The artist was born in 1532 in Cremona, Italy, the eldest of seven children, and died in 1625 at the age of 93 in Palermo, Italy. Her father believed girls should be offered the same educational opportunities as boys, an unusual view in the 16th century. Because the artist was a noblewoman, she could not accept money in payment for her work but could accept expensive gifts including jewelry and clothing and the patronage of a king.
As the play begins, Sofonisba leaves Italy for Spain where she will serve as a lady-in-waiting and painting teacher to 14-year-old Queen Isabel, the eldest daughter of Henry II of France and Catherine de’ Medici. The audience learns much of her story in Sofoniba’s conversation with her dead mother and an initial interrogation by the king’s bishop.
The play is rather cinematic in that it is a series of short scenes. Director Dawn McAndrews expertly keeps the show moving at a good clip through many scene changes. She also wrings all the comedy from the dialogue especially in the interactions between and among Sofonisba (Amber McNew), Isabel (Sophia Mobbs) and the king’s fool (Michael Rosas). The scenes with the bishop, Sofonisba’s suitor Don Francisco (both played by Henry Hetz) and King Phillip (Reece Santos) provide the more serious conversations and arguments about the appropriate roles and the duties of women in society.
Three summers ago at Monmouth, McNew delightfully portrayed what happens when a woman, oppressed by social expectations, is able to turn her free spirit loose in “Enchanted April.” The actress’ passion as Sofonisba is as tightly wound as it was unfurled in that production. McNew portrays the artist’s steely determination in Sofonisba’s ramrod straight posture, the tight grip she keeps on her feelings and the care in which she enunciates. It is a stunningly memorable performance that illuminates how restrained and contained women were in the 16th century.
Mobbs, a student at the University of Houston, captures all of the exuberance, energy and petulance of the young queen, just 14 when Sofonisba arrives. The actress openly wears Isabel’s frustration and fear over not bearing sons as if it were another adornment in her hair. Mobbs’ exultant performance is the perfect counterpoint to McNew’s tightly wound Sofonisba.
Rosa’s Fool is a silly but charming man who understands his place at court but enjoys getting a rise out of the queen and nearly seducing Sofonisba. The actor draws from many of Shakespeare’s jesters to create a fool all his own.
The performances of Hetz and Santos, who each play dual roles, are so distinct that it is hard to tell the same actor is portraying two characters. Hetz is commanding and demanding as the Bishop, who reminds Sofonisba of her precarious position as an unmarried woman at court. As her bumbling suitor, the actor gives Don Franciso a sweet determination that makes theatergoers love him, even if Sofonisba does not.
Santos fills the stage with entitlement and ego befitting Isabel’s king. He is respectful, understanding and supportive of Sofonisba until he is not, and then explodes in a tirade that pins the audience in its seats and forces Sofonisba to do what she’d refused to do for so many years. In a brief role at the end of the play, Santos is deferential as he charms the artist, proving that she can love a man and art at the same time.
Monmouth’s production team is always first rate but costume designer Michelle Handley has gone above and beyond for “Sofonisba.” Each costume says as much about each character as the dialogue does. The rich colors and textures dazzle theatergoers.
“Sofonisba” is part of Monmouth’s (R)Evolutionay Redux season that was to have been presented last summer. McAndrews, the company’s artistic director, deserves a standing ovation for crossing her fingers, holding her breath and going forward with this season when many other Maine companies scaled back their offerings this year after being closed last summer because of the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic.
McAndrews is an expert at choosing works that entertain and illuminate audiences while other artistic directors focus almost entirely on the former. The opening night audience for “Sofonisba” was smaller than it has been in previous years and that is a shame. This artist’s story is inspiring and enlightening and, nearly 500 years after her birth, deserves to be heard.
“Sofonisba” runs in repertoire with five other productions through Aug. 22. All theatergoers are required to wear masks inside Cumston Hall. For ticket information, visit theateratmonmouth.org or call 933-9999.