Ire of the Beholder
Cracking wise about this or that presidential candidate doesn't seem so insulting in a country united in the belief that all politicians are laughingstocks. Unkind remarks about an artist of the moment, however, can have dire consequences in a society divided over aesthetic matters.
Serge, Marc and Yvan have what each believes to be a unique and enduring friendship. The three trendy Parisians enjoy going out to restaurants together, share similar likes and dislikes about passing fancies and even live in identically decorated apartments. But when one of them pays tens of thousands of dollars for a square white canvas, all three characters in Yasmina Reza's Art become embroiled in a caustic debate. The Tony Award-winning play, which was presented last fall at the Auditorium Theatre in a touring production starring Taxi regular Judd Hirsch, is the season opener for Denver's Curious Theatre Company, and it features an all-local cast and crew.
The show peaks at a high energy level from the get-go instead of allowing the struggle to start small and gradually build to epic proportions. Were the actors to initially fight against the impulse to reveal their characters' deep-seated opinions rather than yanking them to the fore early on, the ensuing struggles might take them -- and us -- more by surprise. Generally speaking, when friends reveal hitherto unspoken feelings and thoughts, there's usually a moment when they stare at each other in disbelief, all the while swallowing the remarks they're dying to hurl at each other, before creeping out onto the ledge of friendship-threatening argument. While the performers in director Nicholas Sugar's version pause to take in this or that comment, they rarely suppress the feelings welling up inside them -- a choice that makes the first few scenes seem deadly serious instead of dangerously comic.
About midway through, however, the actors' collective intensity better matches the dialogue's, and for the remainder of the eighty-minute intermissionless piece, they effectively highlight the play's subtleties and ambiguities. Indeed, apart from the initial bombast (which will likely diminish as the show settles into its run), Sugar elicits portrayals that blend subtlety with passion, conviction with doubt and humor with pathos.
Paul Borrillo brings an abundance of whimsy and gravity to the role of Marc, the man who laughingly assails Serge's artwork purchase and, later, laments it -- mostly because he believes that Serge wouldn't have bought the painting if he'd continued to appreciate art by using, as he evidently has been for years, the sensibilities that Marc helped him acquire. Moments after making that observation, Borrillo touches upon another intriguing idea when he says of his friends, "What are they apart from my faith in them?"
Jim Hunt lends ticklish warmth to Serge, the overly sensitive art collector who fights to reconcile his affection for the white canvas with his friends' blithe contempt for it. Hunt's slightly downturned countenance and feather-footed gait belie his wounded feelings in wonderfully comic ways, like when he lightly claps his hands in order to keep his pals from getting too close to the canvas and thereby prevent them from disturbing its magical resonance.
Chip Walton renders the waffling Yvan as a charming sort who doesn't really mean to waffle, but will waffle if waffling seems appropriate -- and, at the moment, right. Outraged at having been called subservient for trying to be the voice of reason, he demonstrates his eloquence a few moments later when observing, "Nothing brave or beautiful in this world has been born of rational argument."
As performed against a grayish, glass-block setting of monastic proportions and museum-like austerity, the smartly dressed actors seem right at home with each other and their surroundings (the setting was designed by Britta Erickson and Matthew Morgan; costumer Janice L. Benning tastefully outfits the cast in designer sportcoats and slacks). Several nicely choreographed leg movements and false exits help to undercut some of the spoken cacophony, and shifting patterns of light and color bleed through the glass block to mark the many transitions (Anna R. Kaltenbach fashioned the lighting).
In the end, Sugar and company bring a measure of earthiness and dimensionality to the characters that was lacking in the touring version. And they also drive home the idea that discussions about aesthetics -- not those old points of contention, religion and politics -- are, perhaps not to our benefit, what define us now.
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