'Van Gogh' offers passion, art musings
By Joseph T. Rozmiarek
Special to The Advertiser
By Joseph T. Rozmiarek
By their very natures, artists are passionate and self-absorbed. The nature of their audience is to value the artists' output for its imaginative merit or its commanding price tag, but to give little thought to the creative process, which remains intensely personal, little understood, and sometimes frightening.
But in his play, "Inventing Van Gogh," Steven Dietz questions the nature of art and the trauma of its creation by pulling together — across time and space — a collection of characters who are deeply engaged in articulating an answer.
The play is not an art lecture, although some of its central arguments begin to sound like one.
The set-up has a young contemporary artist (played by Paul Mitri, who also directs) struggling with the task of forging Van Gogh's last self-portrait, reportedly done shortly before his suicide. The painting is rumored to exist, but has never been found. Ethics aside, the task is made more difficult because the young man has never considered Van Gogh to be the genius others make of him.
The young living artist considers Van Gogh to have been untalented and overrated, not recognized until after his death, and then only as the product of tragic hype. But as he confronts the blank canvas, the would-be forger is visited by Van Gogh himself (Rob Duval).
What follows is an examination of passion and madness involving other personalities both living and dead, who slide in and out of the action by approaching time and space on a 360-degree continuum.
There are the artist's deceased mentor and Van Gogh's physician (both played by Ned Van Zandt). The artist Paul Gauguin makes an appearance, as does the modern-day "authenticator" who hatches the forgery scheme (both acted by Russel Motter.) And there are the artists' women, both of whom want "to be seen" and not just painted. Hannah Schauer Galli plays a contemporary art groupie, who sleeps with artists "because she knows they will leave her" and Marguerite Gachet, who challenges Van Gogh when he refuses to paint looking into her eyes.
But despite the argument and the passion, the high emotion and the challenging, demanding dialogue, the production fails to make us care about any of its characters, living or dead. There is one brief moment when Duval's Van Gogh seems poised to slice off his ear with a straight razor, and we are disappointed when he doesn't. That act, at least, would give tangible evidence to all of the pain that the characters keep saying courses through their hearts.
The Hawaii Repertory staging looks good, set in an abandoned warehouse with images of Van Gogh paintings projected on its tall brick walls. But to get inside Van Gogh's creative suffering, a modern audience needs more reference than sunflower and starry night images.
We need to feel from the production that the living and the dead artists merge through their shared experience of creating art to the point that might even authenticate the ultimate forgery. While it is intelligent and sharp, the production fails to engage us in that central argument or in the characters who articulate it.