Touch and Gogh

Shouldering the tools of his trade, a gaunt figure walks on to the stage, opens his artist's easel and begins to paint. He dons a hat emblazoned with burning candles that set his canvas aglow, while a backdrop reflects dual self-portraits of the man's face. In this first moment of dramatic incarnation, we sense the potential for greatness in the world premiere of Christopher Selbie's A Certain Vincent.

Based on the correspondence between Vincent van Gogh and his brother, Theo, the one-man show is rich with material to draw upon. The brothers' letters are vivid enough to pass for great literature on their own; add to them a live three-piece band, projections of the artist's paintings and the versatile talents of Selbie, and the Compass Theatre's production seems destined for theatrical splendor.

Director Steve Wilson has shaped an engrossing drama that encapsulates in an hour the life of one of the world's most remarkable artists. And Selbie's turn as the tormented genius (as well as the people who inhabit his many worlds) is nothing short of a virtuoso performance. Each major period in van Gogh's life is given attention as we accompany him from his early struggles as a theological student to his last, forlorn hours. Along the way, Selbie portrays the handful of people significant to the late-blooming prodigy, the most memorable of whom is his artistic compatriot, Paul Gauguin.

Above all, the play examines the forces that spurred van Gogh to abandon his altruistic Christian beliefs (he was the son of an exacting and severe Dutch minister) in favor of a life devoted solely to painting. Deftly moving about the performing space in the Jewish Community Center's Pluss Theatre, Selbie is able to convey the artist's move to Paris or his retreat to Arles just by taking a step or two toward a backdrop that features van Gogh masterworks created in each place. To the accompaniment of incidental music (the volume of which sometimes covers the spoken monologue), we witness van Gogh's immersion into an intense artistic regimen that spanned the last ten years of his life and produced some 1,500 works (only one of which was sold during his lifetime).

The piece's much-anticipated triumphant moment, however, never quite arrives, despite Selbie's valiant attempt to illuminate and evoke the passion of a man whose canvases today fetch millions of dollars apiece. Mind you, we come close to being granted access to the painter's most private feelings and thoughts. Shades of poetry occasionally color the mostly reportorial language of the play, as van Gogh tells us, "Love of art means the loss of real love." We hang on to such moments, hoping that he will elaborate on his thoughts. But he is never quite forthcoming with his feelings, despite his frequent direct addresses to the audience.

Selbie's character will later confess that an art critic was probably right when he declared that van Gogh would ultimately be understood only by his brother and his fellow artists. But that's no reason to keep the audience on the emotional perimeter; if anything, the artist's introverted nature should hasten our close identification with him in a dramatic setting. Surely it is in the theater that a writer can speculate about the true nature of a person's character. After all, a play's words don't have to be factually verifiable in order to contain truth: Playwrights routinely take dramatic license filling in the sketchy areas of the lives of historical figures.

But as we watch Selbie maniacally race through various episodes in van Gogh's life--some humorous, some not--and as we listen to him recount the contents of the brothers' letters, we are never wholly satisfied. We yearn to discover what it was like for the artist to live his enigmatic life. And given that what most audience members know about him are his paintings, his relationship to Gauguin and the sordid details of his life's final years, it would have seemed an obvious decision to narrow the play's focus to those subjects and develop the drama from there. Such a choice would have revealed the painter's soul to an audience more profoundly than any number of letters read to us ever could.

It is worth remembering that the production's stated intent is to "throw some light on Vincent's personality and the forces that shaped his work," and credit is certainly due to Selbie for what amounts to a tour de force for him. Nevertheless, it is equally worth noting that the piece--still in its infancy--too often feels more like a quick tour through the artist's life than an in-depth excursion.

A Certain Vincent, through October 9 at the Pluss Theatre, in the Robert E. Loup Jewish Community Center, 350 South Dahlia Street, 331-1148.

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Jim Lillie