I admire Steve Callahan for driving this difficult vehicle through to performance. Opening West End’s 102nd season last night, the script presents a fairly strong first act, but the action bogs down significantly in the second. There is the kernel of a good idea here, but the play is just simply too long. After a while, the audience member begins to wonder if dead people will ever stop coming back and declaiming. And in that last word of the previous sentence lies the biggest problem with Callahan’s direction. His style works well for the old-fashioned three-act shows he has done for Act Inc. during its summer seasons, but it is simply too stylized and declamatory for this kind of complex postmodern exploration of the making and meaning of art, the blurring of the spirit and real worlds, and the doubling of characters and situations that occur in this “hallucinatory whodunit,” as the program dubs it.
Set in both a studio in an abandoned warehouse in a big city in America and in various places in and around the “yellow house” where Van Gogh was deprived of his art on doctor’s orders, it is always clear where we are. In the present, Patrick (Reginald Pierre) is a young artist and devoted student of Professor Miller (Ron Haglof), an art historian who is a disciple of Vincent Van Gogh. The professor loves Van Gogh as a lover does, and this is often expressed through his relationships with his fellow students, although the manner in which this takes form is ambiguous.
Patrick thinks Van Gogh was a hack and is vociferous in his disdain, so it doesn’t really make sense later on when we learn about something he has done with Miller. But at this point, all we know is that he can’t stand the Old Master, and is flabbergasted when he’s approached by art dealer René Bouchard (Tom Kopp) to create a forgery, which Bouchard plans to sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars in an elaborate scheme which includes yet another copy and a web of intrigue that will profit him. It’s no surprise when Patrick refuses, but Bouchard then makes him an offer he doesn’t think he can afford to refuse. By this time, a familiar red-bearded figure with a yellow follow spot (or at least bathed in a yellow light) starts flitting through Patrick’s studio.
Patrick can actually see Van Gogh (Jake Ferree) and they soon begin a debate cum collaboration in which each man schools the other in his theories of creation. Van Gogh believes it all starts with the paints, and their colors lead the artist to his subject and technique, most frequently that subject was himself. Patrick, a much slower painter, believes the subject is prime and the medium is chosen to fit it. Van Gogh says that death doesn’t really exist because the dead always lurk around the margins waiting to be let in, and Patrick has done this. He has, in effect, thought Van Gogh back to life. In so doing, the supposedly insane, one-eared wonder corrects a number of the myths about himself, and Patrick lets him in on some information that Van Gogh finds incredible.
Before long, the two artists are full collaborators in a world that knows no limits of time and space, and they are occasionally by the burly spirit of Paul Gauguin, for some reason identified as “René” in the program and is referred to as such in the dialogue, and while there was such an artist, it was a completely different guy. But maybe it was a nickname of which I’m not aware. Anyway, when Gauguin (Kopp) and Van Gogh start sparring over the impressionists in general and certain painters in particular, it reminded me of the clash between the original macho man, Ernest Hemingway, and the more delicate F. Scott Fitzgerald. Gauguin thinks Van Gogh is a wimp (though he loves him) and Van Gogh thinks Gauguin doesn’t possess the finest brush in the palette (though he loves him).
The actors except Pierre and Ferree double in their parts. In addition to the aforementioned Kopp, Van Gogh’s doctor (Gachet, played by Haglof) in the institution where he spends the last months of his life has a daughter Marguerite (Nellie Ognacevic) who is in love with Van Gogh, but she certainly whines a lot. She is also jealous of another woman who poses for him. Ognacevic also plays Miller’s daughter, Hallie, who is involved with Patrick, but runs away for reasons the play finally gets around to explaining.
Ken Clark’s set looks good, surrounded by Patrick’s brooding black and white abstracts, then when the Van Goghs (deftly replicated by artist and graphic designer Marjorie Williamson) are brought out by the master himself, the colors truly pop. We can almost see that “glow” the professor and Van Gogh himself refer to throughout the production, a combination of artistic sensibility and the natural light found at certain times in the south of France. Van Gogh says the secret to replicating it is to “exaggerate the essential and keep the obvious vague.” Renee Sevier-Monsey’s lights evoke the spirit of both times, although one effect seems to go a bit over the top. KDHX’s senior reviewer Chuck Lavazzi has captured the sounds of the natural countryside where Van Gogh set many of his paintings.
Van Gogh is described as a “mystery within a mystery,” which isn’t quite as eloquent as “a riddle wrappedin a mysteryinside an enigma,” as Churchill put it, but you get the idea. As the play goes along, we see that Patrick and Vincent have much more in common than we or even they think. As the borders of time are stretched near to breaking and the nature of art is deconstructed to the point where it becomes clear that what we consider great art is actually an “invention” rather than a construction, the uses of imagination are called into question. The version of events and artistic sensibility in Inventing Van Gogh is as plausible as any, but the direction needs to be loosened up so the actors sound more like they’re talking (except the professor who is supposed to be lecturing during most of his appearances) and a couple of the parts are, in my opinion, miscast and the actors seem amateurish. Ferree, so good in The Violet Hour recently, and Pierre, fresh off Adding Machine, struggle mightily, but I’m afraid by the end, I felt more like burying playwright Dietz than praising him.