For Chip Walton and his Curious Theatre Company, staging a play like Inventing Van Gogh became an act of invention in itself. The time-traveling play, by former Coloradan Stephen Dietz, tells of a modern painter hired to forge Van Gogh's final masterpiece. To take on such a work is not unusual for a troupe known for its innovations, both psychic and physical; in a previous production, it staged an indoor rainstorm. Still, the opportunity to work on Dietz's drama was a heaven-sent challenge, even for Curious.
Dietz, a champion of regional theater despite his big name, got word of the theater ensemble from his clipping-cutting mother in Denver; he was intrigued enough to contact the company: "One day, we got this jaw-dropper e-mail that said, 'Hi I'm Stephen Dietz. Would you like to look at one of my plays?'" recalls the floored Walton, who naturally jumped at the chance. "He sent us a couple of scripts, but this one -- the first time I read it, I couldn't get through it," he adds. "It's not that it wasn't good; it was just so overwhelming that I had to step back from it before I could get my hands around it."
Van Gogh, which opens Saturday night at the Acoma Center, is rife with challenges, both technical and otherwise. "The playwright describes the play as being 'aggressively theatrical,' and, boy, is it ever," Walton says. "There's nothing realistic about it: Times mix, historical characters talk to contemporary characters. It's like a ghost play in many ways." And Walton could hardly wait to sink his teeth into a drama so complex. To him, it represented what good theater should be about.
Presenting the artistic life through modern eyes while still allowing Van Gogh's vitality to thread through the work was just one of the difficulties involved, but it was one of the most important. To that end, Curious created a set that incorporates subtle images borrowed from the painter's work, as well as an actual painting -- the fictional last self-portrait that's intrinsic to the plot -- created specifically for the play by local impressionistic painter Don Sahli. In addition, because Van Gogh's main characters are artists, the actors portraying them worked with Rob Gratiot of the Art Students League of Denver to perfect their on-stage brush-wielding technique.
All that legwork paid off. "So many people think of art as an ethereal thing," Walton contends. "But in reality, all of us as artists actually do the same thing: We try to create every day. That's what Van Gogh did, and that's what Stephen does, too. Their art is really their work, and when they go to work, they paint or write. The result is not always a masterpiece, but it's still how the artist who has had some success makes his living."
Inventing Van Gogh should do everything that Dietz and Walton intended. Audiences, after all, also seek insight into the creative mind. To augment that idea, Curious will host several discussions throughout the play's run -- including an April 23 pre-show reception and talk on "Fakes, Forgeries and Fables," with Denver Art Museum curator Timothy Standring -- and co-host the DAM's spring film series, "Artists on Film." Walton's also got his fingers crossed for a May residency by busy playwright Dietz, who has a show opening in New York this summer. And beyond that?
Walton can only speculate: "We hope this marks the beginning of a long relationship with a local boy done good."