Saturday, January 10, 2009

I could have told you, Vincent ...

Vincent Van Gogh was out of his mind. He suffered from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia — or something. He had a nutty artistic theory equating light and the color yellow with God, and spirals with the life force. Maniac that he was, he painted like a maniac. His paintings didn’t sell and he never understood why. No woman ever loved him; he never started a family. Van Gogh failed in his transcendent goals; he failed in his mundane pleasures. Ultimately, he shot himself, and failed at that too. It took him six hours to die.

Whatever the reality of Van Gogh’s life, he turned into a saint in the popular mind. A kind of artistic Jesus Christ who sacrificed himself and died for his art. Starry, starry night … and all that crap.

Steven Dietz' Inventing Van Gogh takes on the myth — and chickens out.

To boil down the main plot, Rene Bouchard (David Briethbarth), some contemporary, art world bigwig (a forgery detector in the forgery business) hires a young painter, Patrick Stone, (Jason Peck) to fake Van Gogh’s lost self-portrait — the one Van Gogh supposedly painted the day before he shot himself. The painter has at it — and Van Gogh appears to him like the Ghost of Christmas Past. The play bounces back and forth between Van Gogh’s life in the 1870s and Stone’s life in the 1990s as he struggles to complete his forgery. Back in the past, Van Gogh seems to see the contemporary painter in his visions. It’s a nice conceit: If I can be in your hallucinations, you can be in mine.

Initially, the painter attacks the myth of Van Gogh. But he falls for the myth. He seems to be possessed by the spirit of Van Gogh. He paints the forgery, and the art world buys it. Sad to say, the same thing seems to happen to the playwright. Dietz starts out attacking the hagiography of Van Gogh. Then he falls for it. He expects the audience to buy it.

Problems with the material aside, the Asolo production is stellar. Dan Donohue, as Van Gogh, is worth the price of admission. David Breitbarth shows brio in a dual role as the art world grifter and Gauguin. The other actors are good, but stiffed by the script. The female lead has lines that sounded like rocks in her mouth. (“Hi. I’m the fragile, female, art-whore neurotic who craves attention. Why won’t you speak to me?”) John Windsor-Cunningham gets spongy lines. Peck, as the young artist, hardly gets any lines — his character barely speaks. It’s a brilliant solution to the problem of dialog and characterization: a character who keeps his mouth shut.

I like Brad Dalton’s direction — stately, weird magical realism, brilliantly staged — but that’s sort of like saying I loved the parade float that The Emperor With No Clothes was standing on. I never quite buy the material being directed. Dietz is brilliant, in terms of structure, but he doesn’t follow through with the implications of his premise. And he can’t write female dialog to save his life.

I kept thinking WWSKD?

What Would Stephen King Do?

I.e.: Van Gogh’s nutty ideas drive him crazy. He goes out to a wheat field and shoots himself — but he passes the infection on. 100 years later, the art history teacher gets it — and goes out to a wheat field and shoots himself. His student fights the infection, then comes down with it too. He “becomes” Van Gogh and paints a forgery. The world applauds, but you know he’s destined to go out to a wheat field and shoot himself.

But no. That's not what happens.

Dietz’ play doesn’t go there. Stone completes his forgery — and that's a good thing. The spirit of Van Gogh is painting through him. Stone starts out as a skeptic — then falls down on his knees and says "Yes, Lord" to the cult of Van Gogh.

Van Gogh is a popular saint. Dietz' play invents him (or reinvents him) and makes no attempt to deconstruct him. It starts out by taking on the myth — and then has second thoughts. Dietz gives the audience what he thinks it wants.

At the end, Van Gogh walks into a painted sunset, like Uncle Remus at the end of The Song of the South.

And I could’ve told you Vincent
The world was never meant.
For one as beautiful.
As you.

Imagine, say, a play called Inventing Jesus Christ. The play you'd expect would rudely take apart the notion of Jesus — the play would tell us the Jesus we know in our heads is a fraud, an artifice, a fake, our own invention. Blasphemy, sure. You'd expect a similar artistic blasphemy with a play titled Inventing Van Gogh. A deconstruction of Van Gogh's artistic sainthood. Of the cult of Van Gogh.

But this is not that play.

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