07/15/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Stage Door: Occupant, Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy

Louise Nevelson, famed American sculptor, was known on two fronts: first for her large-scale wood installations, and second for her dramatic personae - garbed in exotic dress and double-layered sable eyelashes, she was unforgettable. Both are on display at the Signature Theater's production of Occupant, Edward Albee's prickly homage to the artist. It's a two-person play, but the night belongs to the remarkable Mercedes Ruehl, who captures Nevelson's gritty charm with a fierce singularity.

Occupant chronicles the life and times of Nevelson; part bio, part quest for that intangible quality that defines an artist. "It's about her, and how she survived the various vicissitudes and got to turn into her work," Albee told an interviewer. But the "vicissitudes" were brutal, and Albee, who was friends with Nevelson, is still tough on her. Would a male artist be slammed for championing work over family? Or hear critics acclaim his art, then dismiss it when discovering his gender? In the guise of interviewer, Larry Bryggman plays "The Man," and while he admires Nevelson's originality, he's also merciless in his relentless questioning.

Nevelson is renowned for her "assemblages," found objects she transformed into large sculptures. Best known for her wood installations, often coated with monochromatic spray paint, Nevelson introduced them in the late 1950s and by her death in 1988, was recognized as one of America's most prominent and innovative sculptors. Getting there, however, meant enduring endless rejection, poverty and isolation.

"The Man" wants to know the specifics of Nevelson's life. We learn she was a Russian Jew who immigrated to Maine with her family. Anti-Semitism helped define the young Leah Berliawsky, who married a shipping magnate, Charles Nevelson, a Lithuanian Jew, in 1920. Her personal story - marriage, divorce, affairs, motherhood, artistry - is told without sentimentality; Ruehl is captivating as a woman who understands she's destined to be "exotic," and willing to pay the price.

"Know the space you occupy," she commands. Nevelson's refusal to submit to conventional expectations may be painful to her family, but she argues for a freedom that's both complicated and understandable. As for the spin - one assumes the famous routinely embellish. Her quest is to be free, to fulfill her destiny; expectations be damned. Insightful, moving, aggravating and astounding, Occupant reveals the true grit behind an artist's calling. (Mounted briefly in 2002 with Anne Bancroft, it closed in previews, due to the actress' health.) The performances are crisp and well-calibrated; Pam MacKinnon's direction is sensitive and fluid, while Ruehl is pitch-perfect. She commands the stage much as Nevelson's sculptures command a room.

By contrast, Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy focuses on the wholly physical. Created and directed by Neil Goldberg at the Broadway Theater, Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy is a collection of extraordinary circus acts from Mongolia to Moldova. The production delights the imagination, while stretching, literally, what the body can do. Billed as family entertainment, the slender narrative involves an engaging Adventurer (Marcello Balestracci), who enters a surreal jungle that comes to life, gliding from one extraordinary act to the next.

He is guided by a singing Mother Nature, Jill Winters, the only weak element here. As each act climaxes, her intrusion, coupled with unintelligible lyrics, detracts from the amazing artistry of the performers. With grace and gymnastic splendor, they defy the laws of gravity and anatomy, swinging from the stage into the audience. Aerialists suggest the grace of butterflies. An "hairalist" is lifted by her ponytail and spun with dizzying speed. Trapeze artists, strong men, acrobats and jugglers astound with their skill and ingenious choreography. When four contortionists folded their arms and legs in impossible combinations, my 7-year-old theater partner gasped: "Am I seeing what I think I'm seeing?" In Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy, seeing is believing.