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Van Gogh’ paints powerful portrait

Marty Schroeder | Friday, February 17, 2006

“Inventing Van Gogh,” by Stephen Dietz, is a powerful play that brings characters from different times together for a dynamic inquiry into the human experience. It involves love, obsession, what is meant by the word “art” and, ultimately, what it means to be a human being with something to live for. None of the characters involved are perfect, but they all display their humanity in distinct ways.

This play is about Patrick Stone, a struggling painter in the present day. Viewers learn that he has painted for some time and that his work is good, if not great. Unfortunately, Patrick is now going through the painter’s equivalent of writer’s block. He is commissioned by the painting authenticator René Bouchard to paint – or forge – the long-lost and only remaining self-portrait of Vincent Van Gogh, from which Bouchard hopes to make a fortune. The play then begins to delve into a series of flashbacks that bring Van Gogh and important figures from his life into Patrick’s world.

This production, directed by Patrick Vassel and Drew McElligott, brings the script to life very adeptly. The play involves some scenes that take place during Van Gogh’s life, some that occur during Stone’s life and a few that involve both characters interacting in the same time period. Due to the nature of the play, the action can be hard to follow at some isolated points, but overall this production does a very good job of minimizing any confusion. As the play progresses, the viewer is caught off guard by the fact that Stone can be in Van Gogh’s time period and vice versa. But suspension of disbelief is something that comes naturally with this play due to the excellent acting.

This acting is the heart of the production. Vassel is very adept at playing the confused Stone, and Nathanial Grams is the appropriately arrogant and effete Bouchard. But the play is carried by Drew McElligott as Van Gogh and Matthew Goodrich as Stone’s late professor, Dr. Jonas Miller. Goodrich also plays Van Gogh’s doctor, Paul Gachet, but is better as the Van Gogh-obsessed Miller. The cast is rounded out with London Vale playing both Miller’s daughter and Stone’s love interest, Hallie Miller and Van Gogh’s love interest and Gachet’s daughter, Marguerite. Finally, Brandon McGirr is excellent as Van Gogh’s arrogant yet insecure mentor, Paul Gauguin.

The play ends quite dramatically, but its real power lies in the middle. In this section, there is much interaction, ranging from Miller and Stone discussing their past, to Dr. Miller’s fruitless quest for Van Gogh’s last self-portrait, to Gauguin and Stone arguing over what art is and what previous artists are of merit. One particular scene involves Stone, Van Gogh and Gauguin arguing over which artists that came before Van Gogh are noteworthy. The subtext of this scene is how one should live life. The interaction between McElligott, McGirr, and Vassel is one of the strongest aspects of the play.

McElligott, at his most energetic here, walks all over the stage and gives Van Gogh an erratic presence that seems to mirror his painting style. McGirr is also at his strongest. He portrays a very self-assured Gauguin but the script betrays this slightly with some self-doubt. McGirr’s delivery combines these two to give his character many levels. Finally, Vassel brings to the stage a confused Stone who is absorbing what these two great artists have to say. While the end provides the resolution to all the conflict throughout the play, it is this very conflict that arouses the most emotion and gives the most satisfaction to the audience.

The Washington Hall Lab Theater is adroitly used as Stone/Van Gogh’s studio, which ultimately fuses into one studio they both use. The lighting, designed by Ryan Retartha, has the stage awash in blues, reds and yellows, giving an essence of the colors that become an important part of Van Gogh’s character.

While this play is not perfect, it is an excellent, exciting and very thought-provoking piece of contemporary theater.