Steven Dietz's Inventing van Gogh unleashes a torrent of ideas about art, possibly enough for a dozen plays. The words are so evocative and so many, the set and lighting so lusciously colored and the acting so selfless that the experience of watching the play becomes all-encompassing. I felt engulfed by a tide of sensory experience. There are dozens of themes that deserve closer analysis, but my primary feeling on leaving was that I had been watching the titanic struggle of an artist to wrench meaning from a recalcitrant world and ransom his own soul. Author Dietz tells us in the script that by the time van Gogh created his later works, he was squeezing paint directly onto the canvas rather than using a brush, and shaping it with such force that it retained fragments of his fingernails. There's something of this intensity in the form and content of the play itself -- its swirling structure, density of allusion and furious commitment to discovery.
I loved this play, but I think it would take more than one viewing to plumb its full significance. Inventing van Gogh does contain some loose ends and unanswered questions. The one female in the play -- an actress who plays both the mistress of Patrick, a contemporary painter, and van Gogh's occasional model -- is enigmatic, perhaps incompletely imagined. She's largely invisible to both men, and her motivations remain equally opaque to us. There's also something incomprehensible in the relationship between van Gogh and his doctor, Gachet -- who worships the artist but keeps his canvases strewn carelessly about the house, unframed. Gachet's idolatry is paralleled by the obsession with van Gogh of a present-day professor, Dr. Miller. Miller and Gachet both neglect their own daughters (the aforementioned mistress and model) -- Gachet to concentrate on van Gogh, Miller to focus on his student, Patrick. Why? Is there a hint here of homosexual love, or is this a comment on the inescapable seductiveness of art?
Let me ground you with some plot.
The play begins when an unscrupulous art authenticator, Bouchard, visits Patrick, who has been unable to paint since the suicide of his mentor, Dr. Miller. Bouchard proposes that Patrick fabricate a lost and legendary self-portrait, supposedly completed by van Gogh shortly before his suicide. He has concocted a tale to go with the forged work that involves an American GI, a stone cottage and a beautiful butcher's wife -- the kind of tale that aligns perfectly with the van Gogh folklore about madness, whores and severed ears. Soon after this exchange, Miller's daughter Hallie begins a relationship with Patrick.
Patrick doesn't even like van Gogh: "He's not a painter, he's a myth...untalented, overrated," he says. Nonetheless, he sets about the task of forgery. As he struggles at the easel, he hallucinates van Gogh -- who seems also to be hallucinating him. The two men face each other -- the artist in his signature yellow straw hat, the sullen young student wearing the necessary black sweater. The play shifts back and forth in time; the two lives unfold. Patrick conjures up the dead Dr. Miller and carries on his affair with Hallie. Van Gogh talks to his model, Marguerite, consults with Gachet, paints, despairs, and argues with his friend, Gauguin.
Every role in the Curious Theatre regional premiere production, with the exception of Patrick and van Gogh, is double cast. Not only does Kendra Crain McGovern play both Hallie and Marguerite, but Jim Zeiger plays Miller and Gachet, and Christopher Leo portrays Bouchard and Gauguin.
Playwright Dietz does a fine job of bringing van Gogh to life, acknowledging the kitschification of the artist's work without adding to it, and giving new dimension to such well-known facts as his sleeplessness and frantic productivity. There are some galvanizing scenes: van Gogh asking Patrick if he can see his future; an argument between a frantically sincere van Gogh and the detached, self-involved Gauguin, in which the latter dismisses all impressionist art as "optical masturbations"; the moment when van Gogh wanders into the night wearing four flickering candles on his hat.
As played by Brett Aune, van Gogh is an essentially gentle and guileless man, a little uncomfortable in his body. He possesses an arrogance that stems from his bone-deep understanding of the rightness of his own work, coupled with the insecurity of someone who has laid bare his heart and received only contempt and indifference in return.
Given van Gogh's suffering and his intense, inchoate longings, histrionics from any other cast member would swamp the ship. Fortunately, Aune's work is matched by a beautifully understated performance from Chris Reid as Patrick -- self-effacing, but full of life, integrity and nuance. Christopher Leo gives two very confident star turns as Bouchard and Gauguin, the former hilariously and self-mockingly mannered, the latter enjoying the effects of his own thick-skinned cruelty. Leo is clearly having a lot of fun on stage, and it's infectious. Kendra Crain McGovern has an interesting, sometimes almost disconcerting presence and a long, loping stride. These characteristics work well for sullen, sophisticated Hallie, less so for the downright sulky country girl Marguerite. Jim Zeiger performs ably, endowing Gachet and Miller with telling differences.
Dan Guyette, who created the set, and lighting designer Shannon McKinney must have worked closely together: The stage is dominated by three evocative shapes, which glow with van Gogh greens, reds, yellows and shades of blue. You could lose yourself in Matthew Morgan's sound, and reproductions of van Gogh paintings by local artist Vanessa VanHoudnos adorn the set. ("All painting is original," van Gogh says in the play. "Only photography is theft.") Director Chip Walton is responsible for assembling and coordinating these fine talents.
Above all, this is a wonderful -- and wonderfully literate -- script that avoids its subject's obvious pitfalls, is never ignorantly worshipful, and deploys irony, passion and boldness. Dietz incorporates historical fact without lecturing, and bits of Vincent van Gogh's letters erupt into the text like cries from the grave.
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