note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Carl A. Rossi
Joseph Kaknes has brought his one-man show VAN GOGH to Jimmy Tingle’s Off-Broadway Theatre after a successful Gloucester engagement last summer (JACQUES BREL at the Stuart Street Playhouse/2nd Stage is another transplant; same town, same summer); Mr. Kaknes, a professional artist himself, presents Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90) in his studio on the day before he shot himself, talking to the audience as art students (though he suspects they have also come to gawk at the legendary madman). Though billed as a one-man show, VAN GOGH has two characters, really: a medium-sized canvas stretched on a wooden frame waits, ready for battle (“Painting is more than work;” says this Van Gogh, “it’s combat with a canvas.”). Ninety minutes later, Van Gogh proves victorious: the canvas has been turned into a painting, right before the audience’s eyes --- and it’s a fascinating battle. Armed with brushes and paints, advancing and retreating as he paints (“View your work from a distance; that’s how it will be seen: from a distance, in a museum or a home”), Mr. Kaknes mixes autobiographical narrative with an artist’s insights: “Stop the processing of your eyes; learn to see the colors first, not the forms.” “Tanguy (a beloved paint dealer) was one of the fathers of modern art, without being a painter himself --- his paints will still be vibrant a hundred years from now, while students’ paints will have faded.” “When painting outdoors, learn to paint fast to keep up with the light.” Amazingly, none of Mr. Kaknes’ performance exists in script form; he carries it all within --- to his credit, his monologue never rambles or turns repetitive.
Mr. Kaknes has been criticized for not being an actor. True, he has not dyed his salt-and-pepper to the color of flame nor had an ear made up to be missing its lower third, and he wears his own paint-smeared street clothes. Nor does Mr. Kaknes choose to give a conventional performance: battling his canvas is his performance, causing him, paradoxically, to become “Van Gogh” --- an illusion is created, after all. A trained actor would give Van Gogh dozens of character strokes but would lack the eye, the stance, the messiness --- let alone the craftsmanship --- that Mr. Kaknes brings so effortlessly to the man. Even the flatness of Mr. Kaknes’ playing makes sense, stemming not only from his artist’s concentration but also from Van Gogh being a man misunderstood by family, friends and enemies and finally withdrawing into himself, leaving only a harsh wariness towards the outside world (“…this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you…”).
Last summer I asked Mr. Kaknes had he thought about letting another actor take a crack at his Van Gogh. “Not yet,” he replied. “I’m having too much fun with him.” Indeed, Mr. Kaknes makes painting look easy as well as fun --- but, then, only someone who is not a painter would make such a comment.