Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Van Gogh in Japan"

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note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Carl A. Rossi


written and directed by R. L. Lane
original music composed by Dewey Dellay

Vincent … Seth Kanor
Guard; Gauguin … Scott Severance
Theo … Joe Pacheco
Lisette; Sister #2; Jo … Mara Sidmore
Sophie; Sister; Nathalie … Faith Justice
Bernard; Guillaume … Seth Compton
Vivienne; Mme. Pettibon …. Michaela Lipsey
Degas; Henri; Waiter … Robert Bonotto
Roulin; Peyron; Musician … Steven Barkhimer

R. L. Lane’s VAN GOGH IN JAPAN, first stage-read in Boston two autumns ago and now premiering through The Nora Theatre, is a work as beautiful and tormented as its subject --- artist Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90) in his final years, looking for love, acceptance and the Great Good Place which, to him, was an idealized vision of Japan grafted onto Arles with brilliant and disastrous results. Mr. Lane has written without a net --- his own blood, sweat and tears mingling with Vincent’s --- and produces a solid gallery of portraits: Vincent, with his pipe ever clenched between wooden teeth; his devoted brother, Theo; and a trio of artists, vivid and well-contrasted: Degas, whose urbane cruelty masks a shy, embittered workaholic; Gauguin, as raging and bewildered as a gored bull; the youth Bernard who swaps his paints and canvases for married love and the bourgeois life. Minor characters are swiftly, expertly sketched in: the servant Sophie who bids the departing Vincent not to write to her because she cannot read; Lisette, the cat-eyed whore who is briefly the love of Vincent’s life; Roulin, immortalized in one of Vincent’s best-known oils, alternating between his flask and songs of revolution. Even minor, minor characters effectively fill in the corners of Mr. Lane’s teaming canvas: a provincial man and woman sit downstage gossiping as she knits like one of the Fates while two nuns whisper upstage about their latest patient; a blind accordionist who provides the accompaniment to Gauguin’s impromptu memorial to Vincent, now at rest. Act One ends on a haunting note: Theo, Bernard and Sophie have just seen Vincent off at the train station. A rolled-up canvas, dropped by Vincent in his haste, reveals a blood-red Japanese print; Act Two opens in Arles where Vincent silently, methodically severs an earlobe and floods the stage in similar color: the dream has been linked to nightmare. Magnificent chunks of theatre, here, and Mr. Lane’s dialogue hits the ear the way fresh bread and good wine hit the tongue be it served in the burning-hot countryside or in a chilly Parisian garret.

But there is a tear in the canvas: Mr. Lane gives us the external Vincent but little of the man’s art or philosophy (as Degas says, picking through Vincent's rejected canvases, “Where are you?”), plus he is away for stretches at a time, leaving the others to converse about him for much of the evening. Fortunately, Seth Kanor is so ablaze as Vincent that the Playwrights’ stage vibrates with his presence long after he has quit a scene. Like Mr. Lane, Mr. Kanor also works without a net: whatever Vincent’s thoughts, the results are blunt and direct, alienating strangers and driving those who love him to distraction --- the more his visual sense develops, the more he is reduced to roars and grunts as if words no longer matter (when he paints as if in a trance, Mr. Kanor’s brush strokes hit the canvas like machine-gun fire) and when he embraces Bernard in farewell then pounces on him again like a bear with its cub, he is akin to Frankenstein’s monster, roaming the countryside in search of a friend; in asylum, he is locked in silence --- his flame, barely a flicker. The suicide is simple and heartbreaking, executed under a crow’s mocking solo. Even as written, this is one of the year’s most moving performances.

Mr. Lane has given himself and Mr. Kanor a dream of a supporting cast without a weak leak in the chain (example: Steven Barkhimer, in three protean bits). Joe Pacheco, who sparkled in the Nora production of BETRAYAL, now dims his lights as Theo, well-shading the character’s love for his brother and his own decline; Scott Severance bellows his Gauguin without lapsing into caricature and Seth Compton’s Bernard is a sweet reed to Mr. Severance’s cymbals and drums. Faith Justice and Michaela Lipsey have faces that cry out for Daumier and Lautrec; Mara Sidmore neatly somersaults from bare-breasted model to sister of mercy. As fine as they all are, Robert Bonotto tops them all as Degas; his one scene with Vincent, where they play his peculiar version of Truth or Dare, is the show’s (early) highlight with its dazzling word- and gun play as these two titanic egos --- one, bruising; the other, already bruised --- bounce off each other. If one’s appetite is whetted for the Van Gogh-Gauguin confrontations, disappointment follows: Gauguin’s life with Vincent in Arles becomes the character’s opening monologue --- a crucial passage, reduced to words (there are times when a playwright must show, not tell!).

Mr. Lane’s direction is as honest and heartfelt as his writing with each scene taking its title from a Van Gogh painting; Dewey Dellay’s original score, alternately scratchy and reflective, greatly assists in covering the numerous scene changes. Regardless of that tear in Mr. Lane’s canvas, VAN GOGH IN JAPAN is recommended --- nay, required! --- viewing while it is in Boston for a few more starry, starry nights.

"Van Gogh in Japan" (4-28 March)
Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Avenue, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 491-2026

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