Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2006
This summer the Berkshires are all about celebrating brothers who collect things. Starting with the Barrington Stage Company’s Stage II production of The Collyer Brothers at Home and continuing with The Rosenbach Company and the exhibit The Clark Brothers Collect: Impressionist and Early Modern Paintings at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, local artists and institutions seem obsessed with these three sets of brothers, who all lived and collected during much the same period of history - between the end of the American Civil War and conclusion of World War II.
Collecting defined the lives of the Rosenbachs, the Clarks, and the Collyers. While their collection literally held the Langley (1885-1947) and Homer (1881-1947) Collyer prisoners together in their home, collecting drove a wedge between Sterling (1877-1956) and Stephen Clark (1882-1960) and Abe and Philip Rosenbach. Abe Rosenbach claimed to be victim to the incurable disease of bibliomania, while the mental disorder clinically known as disposophobia is commonly referred to as Collyer Brothers Disorder. Because what the Clarks and the Rosenbachs collected was deemed to have monetary, artistic, and historical value, their collecting instincts were respected while the Collyers’ were viewed with disgust. Yet I wonder in this E-bay age if the Collyers’ collections wouldn’t be worth a few pennies after all.
I decided to see and review The Rosenbach Company: A Tragicomedy on July 8 instead of attending the press opening of Hamlet because it was having only one performance and because I became intrigued with the theatrical/musical/artistic collaboration of singer/composer Mark Mulcahy and award-winning artist Ben Katchor when I saw “The Slug-Bearers of Kayrol Island” in 2004. I remain intrigued by Mulcahy and Katchor’s work, but I am puzzled as to how to review The Rosenbach Company since it was presented as a concert version, and I cannot imagine how it could be staged.
Katchor is a visual artist who uses his work to illustrate narratives. Terms like “cartoonist” “comic book artist” or even “graphic novelist” really don’t apply. His works, rendered in pen and ink with a vivid watercolor wash, are used here it illustrate a story based loosely on the lives of Philip and Abe Rosenbach, whose collections of fine arts and rare books form the basis for the collection at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in their native Philadelphia.
The creation of The Rosenbach Company was sponsored by the Rosenbach Museum and Library as part of its fiftieth anniversary celebration. After being approached by the Museum in 2001, Katchor found he was more intrigued by the story of the brothers than by their stuff spent two years doing research for the piece, during which time he had gotten Mulcahy involved. The two had previously collaborated on The Slug-Bearers of Kayrol Island and Katchor had previously teamed up with Bang On A Can Artists on another music theatre work The Carbon Copy Building, both of which were presented at MASS MoCA as well as in New York City and at other venues around the country.
The Rosenbach Company had its world premiere in 2004 at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, where it played to sold-out houses. In an interview that year with the Philadelphia City Paper Katchor is quoted as saying: “I wanted this theater production to be suffused with the handwriting of my drawings. This handmade atmosphere invites the audience to use their imagination in a way that three-dimensional props can't. The audience is forced to ‘read’ each drawing and construct scenic worlds as the show unfolds. The drawings sometime serve to establish a setting, sometimes as close-up view of an event or object, sometimes they're used to propel the narrative. They are much more than backdrops.”
The story is told entirely with Katchor’s words and pictures and Mulcahy’s music, performed here by Mulcahy as Abe Rosenbach, Ryan Mercy as Philip Rosenbach, and Mollie Weaver in a variety of female roles. They are backed by a four-piece ensemble consisting of Brian Marchese (percussion, drums, saxophone), Henning Ohlenbusch (guitar, keyboards, bass), Dave Trenholm (clarinet, flute, saxophone, guitar, bass), and Catherine McRae (violin). Some of the soundtrack is performed live and some is obviously pre-recorded, a juxtaposition I found alarming with the vocal tracks.
The story that is told is primarily Abe’s story. Born Abraham Simon Wolf Rosenbach and known as Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach or Dr. R., Abe was the youngest of the seven Rosenbach siblings. He collected and dealt in rare books. Philip, thirteen years his senior, comes across as a vain fop whose interest in the family business consisted in making money and being seen. Not that Abe comes out smelling like a rose. He is depicted here as a shallow and self-absorbed man who lived for his books and his booze and not much else. In a telling second act number he sings that fewer babies will mean more books because babies eat books. Ironically, the first act opens with a gentle song about a baby eating a book in 1883 which describes how a book was made back then and what it would have tasted like.
The show also opens with a direct reference to “lambskin contraception” (condoms were commonly made of lambskin before the advent of latex), a theme that repeats itself as the Rosenbach brothers remain determinedly childless and unmarried, despite affairs with multiple women. Fewer babies, more books.
The show is not staged and the singers make no attempt to act out the story. What you are left with is a kind of sung-through graphic biography…about rare books…hardly your typical musical theatre plot or format. Katchor has been quoted describing the experience thusly: “It’s half reading a comic strip, half seeing an opera, and half going to a rock concert.”
Lest you think there is no suspense in such a tale, Katchor does manage to come up with a really gripping cliff-hanger just before intermission, the resolution of which at the rise of the second act curtain provoked cheers from the audience.
While impossible to classify, The Rosenbach Company is definitely theatrical and memorable. I cannot imagine how it could be staged, even having seen The Slug-Bearers of Kayrol Island where the live performers, including Mulcahy and Weaver, interacted with Katchor’s projected artwork in surprising and innovative ways. Slug-Bearers was a whimsical fantasy while The Rosenbach Company is a fairly stolid biography, moving chronologically through Abe and Philip’s lives which were more oriented towards acquisition than action.
“There is a hopeless futility in wanting to come closer to history and art through the possession of historical artifacts — old books, antiques, etc. The pursuit of such objects, within the finite span of a human life, offers both tragic and comedic possibilities.” Katchor said after writing The Rosenbach Company.
While there is not another chance to see The Rosenbach Company here in western Massachusetts, the Clark exhibit is on display through September 4. The lesson that acquisition, whether of fine art or useful junk, does not ultimately enhance a filial relationship, is one well worth learning.
Go to Ben Katchor's Web site for more information about the creation and future performances of The Rosenbach Company. For information on future programs at MASS MoCA please call 413-662-2111.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006