Van Gogh's Ear
The famous artist finds his sound in this new theatrical concert.
Vincent Van Gogh sounds absolutely gorgeous. For those protesting that Van Gogh was a painter, not a musician, playwright Eve Wolf and the Ensemble for the Romantic Century has a response in Van Gogh's Ear, a theatrical concert now taking place at the Pershing Square Signature Center. The show ties events in the troubled Dutch artist's life to some of the most arresting music of his age. It's less a play with music than it is a concert with elements of theatricality.
The title conjures the severed ear that has often overshadowed the artist's work in the public imagination. It takes on an entirely different meaning in this show, which lovingly curates an aural landscape to accompany Van Gogh's visual one. An ensemble of six onstage musicians performs music by Claude Debussy and Gabriel Fauré (with a piece each by Ernest Chausson and César Franck). Through these formally daring and highly expressive musical works, Wolf makes an argument for Van Gogh as a fellow traveler: Like these composers, his art bridges the divide between 19th-century Romanticism and 20th-century Modernism. Think of it as a highbrow jukebox musical.
Music underscores Van Gogh (Carter Hudson) at work in his studio, his self-mutilation, his stint in an asylum at Saint-Rémy, and his eventual death. Wolf (artistic director of the 16-year-old company) has drawn on Van Gogh's letters to his brother, Theo, to create the limited text of this mostly musical experience. That fraternal drama is also the most compelling one in the play. Theo (a sympathetic Chad Johnson) steadfastly supports his brother even as he fails to sell a single painting. Johnson bitterly chokes down a glass of wine as Hudson weakly states, "Theo, my debt to you is so great that when I have paid it, the pains of producing the pictures will have taken my whole life from me." He's right about the eventual toll of his art, although the idea that he would ever pay Theo back proves to be a fantasy.
Hudson easily assumes the mantle of this textbook tortured artist. He drinks and broods, sometimes limping across the stage to stare out the window of his tiny cell. "In autumn, when the leaves acquire something of the violet tinge of the ripe fig, the violet effect will manifest itself vividly through the contrasts, with the large sun taking on a white tint within a halo of clear and pale citron yellow," he entrances us with his observations of light and color, like a badass Bob Ross. David Bengali's vibrant projections, all of which are drawn from Van Gogh's own paintings, further illustrate his words. Hudson's crisp Great Plains diction gives the Dutch artist a particularly American vibe. His sad eyes and handsome looks suggest Van Gogh as a tragic heartthrob, one who lives passionately and dies young, following a path that stretches from Jesus Christ to James Dean.
While Theo correctly surmised his brother's talent and eventual influence, scrupulously saving his correspondence, Vincent did not return the favor. Few of Theo's letters survive as a result, a problem that Wolf addresses by keeping him in stony silence throughout. Only the artist speaks, while Theo looks on, often pained by what he hears. When he finally does open his mouth, it is to sing Debussy's magnificently melancholic "Beau Soir." Johnson brings a rich tenor to the role, fully articulating the inflections of light and dark in the lyrics.
Renée Tatum and Kevin Spirtas are the two other actors in Donald T. Sanders's dreamlike (if a bit sleepy) staging. Tatum brings a powerful voice to Gabrielle Berlatier, the brothel employee to whom Van Gogh bestows his detached ear. Spirtas luxuriously plays the foppish asylum director, Doctor Peyron. His one line makes him the only other character to speak, breaking a convention that hitherto set Van Gogh apart and made him seem more alien in this otherwise musical world. It's not a worthwhile sacrifice for a modestly comedic monologue.
Designer Vanessa James (set and costumes) creates a handsome, mostly white playing space. Taking the shape of a bedroom and sitting area, it is actually a blank canvas that the artist will fill with color (via projection) by the time the play is finished. While James has created convincing period costumes for the actors (Vincent's blue jacket and straw hat is ironically reproduced), the look for the musicians is somewhat more confusing. They wear long white thawbs with green kufi caps. Colorful slippers peek out from underneath their robes. This is perhaps meant to suggest the elemental colors Van Gogh employed, but it actually makes it look like Van Gogh is hallucinating about a Muslim string quintet.
That design misstep doesn't dampen our appreciation for the artistry onstage: Henry Wang (Violin), Yuval Herz (Violin), Chieh-Fan Yiu (Viola), and Timotheos Petrin (Cello) form a mean string section, with clear-cut dynamics and a smoothly blended tone. Max Barros and Renana Gutman switch off at the piano, wowing us with their flying fingers on this very difficult music. Fauré Piano Quartet No. 2 in G minor is particularly impressive, perfectly expressing with music Van Gogh's heavy, seemingly rushed, but always precise brush strokes. There are few lovelier ways to spend 100 minutes.