note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Beverly Creasey
R.L.Lane’s VAN GOGH IN JAPAN begins with a hilarious scene set in the Louvre, in which a haughty museum guard tries to eject the disheveled Dutchman from the premises. The Nora Theatre Company’s production follows in the famous footsteps of Irving Stone (not to mention Kirk Douglas), several other films and the two-character British play which won an Olivier prize and crossed the pond last season. What sets Lane’s play apart is his clever speculation about the circumstances of Vincent’s tragic death. To that end Lane introduces a petty tyrant of a Degas, perhaps the only person in France who can leave the ranting Vincent speechless. Lane has Degas plant the seeds of Vincent’s last act by challenging him to a diabolical game of Russian one-upmanship.
VAN GOGH IN JAPAN is full of smart ideas…and lots of commotion. Vincent alone creates a whirlwind wherever he goes, and wherever he goes, Lane shows us, Vincent is surrounded by detractors, rivals and because of his mental illness, a deafening sort of white noise, translated to us by sound designer Dewey Dellay. (Vincent may have cut off his ear in an effort to stop the voices he heard.)
Whether or not syphilis or epilepsy brought on his madness (or lead poisoning from ingesting his paints), it’s clear that Vincent was tormented. (I expected a mad scene to justify the title, where Vincent would insist the South of France was Japan and his comrades would either go along with his delusions or try to dispel them, but the notion of ‘Japan’ seems to evaporate before the end of the play.)
The Nora production, directed by Lane and Anne Gottlieb, crackles with powerful performances: Seth Kanor delivers one manic aria after another as the out of control Vincent. Joe Pacheco gives an equally matched, but polar opposite performance as Vincent’s exasperated brother, one to whom self-control and propriety are as important as painting is to Vincent. What heartbreak and exhaustion we see on Theo’s face at play’s end!
Robert Bonotto explodes onto the stage as the wildly egotistical Degas, delighted to denounce Vincent as an amateur. Scott Severance gets to set off a few explosions himself, as Gauguin.. (Lane doesn’t need to elaborate after Gauguin announces his travel plans. The audience will know he means Tahiti and telling us outright cheats us out of the pleasure of recognition.)
Seth Compton gives a lovely, tragic in its own way, performance as the painter Emile Bernard (whose enameling technique Van Gogh admired), forced to choose between painting and marriage. Steven Barkhimer, as the Marxist postman, almost takes your breath away (Kudos to costumer Jaqueline Dalley): It’s as if you are seeing a painting spring to life. On the subject of paintings, Bonotto reproduced the Van Gogh canvases so remarkably that should he tire of acting, he could make a pretty penny at art forgery.
The women in the company do yeoman’s work doubling and tripling roles (Mara Sidmore is a coquettish artist’s model; Faith Justice a no nonsense nun and Michaela Lipsey an anguished wife) but the men overpower them. My only concern about all that testosterone on stage is that it splits the focus of the play. I was overwhelmed by all the chaos and shouting but fascinated nevertheless…and thrilled by the caliber of the Nora performances.