The premiere of writer-director Anne Hulegard’s “Rossetti’s Circle” succeeds by taking material that isn’t inherently dramatic — the rise and fall of 1800s painting group the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood — and adding life to the history through bright dialogue and subtle perfs. The play isn’t so much about a style of painting — although it never forgets how important it was to these artists that their work mean something specific — as it is about the artists themselves: what brought them together and what finally broke them apart. Hulegard refreshingly assumes her audience is intelligent, and her erudite drama is given life and emotion by a solid cast.
In 1852, painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Daniel Kaemon) has formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to revive the bold qualities of medieval art in the brotherhood’s own work. His artistic compatriots in the group include the repressed William Morris (Adam Smith), famed painter John Ruskin’s disciple Sir John Everett Millais (David Webb) and the eager-to-please Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (Graves).
As the play begins, Burne-Jones has just introduced young Elizabeth Siddal (Amy Fitzmaurice) to the group as a possible model. Rossetti is smitten with Siddal immediately, but whether he can settle for a relationship with one woman instead of many is open to question.
Kaemon brings blazing talent and dark charisma to his perf as Rossetti. Whether he’s seducing Siddal by painting her, rhapsodizing about the heretofore unknown qualities of morning light or cruelly abusing all around him, he is the vital center of the show, the vortex around which everything and everyone revolves.
Fitzmaurice is excellent as the unfortunate Siddal, in a nicely modulated and moving perf as a smart woman who allows herself to succumb to Rossetti’s charm and ultimately is destroyed by him, like a moth unable to resist flying into fire.
Webb and Graves are fine as the ambitious Millais and the loyal Burne-Jones, respectively. Smith excels as Morris, who may be in love with Rossetti, and a moment where he quietly tells his friend “I’ve missed you so” is deeply moving.
Carmit Levite brings a good combination of earthy humor and hot temper to her portrayal of prostitute/housekeeper Fanny, and Jennifer Seifert is politely wicked as Morris’ wife, Jane, who has always been more attracted to Rossetti than to her husband.
Hulegard’s direction focuses more on the nuances of acting than staging, but she makes great use of the elegantly cluttered artist’s apartment set she and Graves designed, and her placement of a backlit scrim to portray painting or other scenes is inspired.