Chicago Theatre Review
Bedfellows With Van Gogh
Strange Bedfellows Theatre’s Inventing Van Gogh
When you enter the space at City Lit for Inventing Van Gogh, you are greeted by paintings. Some seem to be replicas of Van Gogh’s work, others entirely original, and one was depicting the Blackhawks winning the Stanley Cup. But it all has that signature Van Gogh style of chucky strokes of colorful paint applied almost rashly but upon stepping back, beautifully arranged to create a piece of art that almost moves. The painters live painting in the lobby are doing so in the style of Van Gogh, but it is difficult for them to capture that certain vibrant element that Van Gogh’s great works have. In the play it is called ‘The Glow’. If you have never seen a painting of Van Gogh’s, then it is easy to take that term as a bit haughty. In fact, if you are not the type of person who has ever studied art history or had an interest in why the impressionist are called that, then you can probably bow out now and see another play. However, for those of you who love a discussion on what art is and how it should reflect nature or the truth of a man’s life, then I expect you will appreciate this play.
Inventing Van Gogh is the story of a young artist named Patrick who has been commissioned to forge a rumored lost portrait of Van Gogh’s, not long after the death of Patrick’s beloved art teacher who was obsessed with finding said portrait. But it’s not entirely about that. It’s about the path of Van Gogh’s life and philosophy on art in some of those final prolific years of his life. But it’s not entirely about that either. This play is much like one of Van Gogh’s paintings, an impression of a life without portraying it exactly how it was. It instead uses pieces to create a whole, not all of them true to history. As Patrick tries in vain to begin forging a masterpiece, he sees visions of his dead teacher, Dr. Miller, as well as Van Gogh himself. These ‘visions’ come in and out of scenes without much warning, and often walk straight through Patrick’s scenes with other characters.
The production, directed by Aaron Henrickson, has all of the passion of an eager young artist without much of the refined technique of a master. There are some interesting choices that just don’t work in the space or the structure of the play. For example, when the subject of ‘The Glow’ comes up, the incandescent lights above the audience glow. This is an interesting idea but in such a small space and with quick talking characters, it was a little distracting and noticing it took me away from the action. Another misguided choice was to have the actors’ don accents when representing figures from Van Gogh’s life. As a means of maintaining an authenticity and identifying when an actor was playing a different character, not a bad idea. However, the accents were inconsistent and sometimes even muddled the dialogue. Now, the performance I saw was a preview, so while some of these elements may get worked out, some choices just didn’t seem to work for the space, or stretched the talent of the performers too far.
All of the performers brought an exciting energy to their roles. Riley Mcilveen, who played Van Gogh, has a frenzied intellect when postulating on art that one would expect of the famed painter. Adam Schulmerich played both an arrogant art authenticator in the present day storyline and the artist Paul Gauguin as a boisterous Frenchman lusty for life. While Schulmerich’s French accent wasn’t as good as his British, both performances were enjoyable to watch. By far the strongest actor was Christine Vrem-Ydstie, who plays Hallie, the daughter of Dr. Miller, and one of the women Van Gogh painted. Every time she walked onto the stage I was immediately draw into her scenes. The dialogue for Hallie was so sharp and precise, and Vrem-Ydstie delivered it exquisitely. Patrick Cameron who played the lead role of Patrick perhaps gave the weakest performance but his character was also quite strange, being one of the most passive and silent in the play.
Much of this play seems taken directly from the hundreds of letters Van Gogh wrote to his brother and other artists. The language is very elevated and sometimes it is odd that phrases written down in letters from over a hundred years ago are shouted out as dialogue. Much of the play felt more like an art history class, but some of the language outside of the historical text was really striking. The phrase that stuck with me long after I left the theatre was when Van Gogh the hallucination discovers Patrick knowledge about his many letters, he says, ‘What gives you the right to read my letters?’. He continues on to say that seeing a painting or reading letters doesn’t mean anyone knows him. It is a fascinating comment on how we judge not just history, but artists. All art is an attempt to understand the world and is an expression of the artist trying to share those thoughts with others.
Strange Bedfellows Theatre takes on a very ambitious play and does it’s best with it. It is not a perfectly written play and it is not a perfectly executed production. But perhaps the imperfections of an artist are how we are to understand their message.
Reviewed by Clare Kosinski
Strange Bedfellows Theatre’s Inventing Van Gogh
Presented August 3 – August 25 by City Lit Theatre, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr Ave., Chicago, IL.
Tickets are available by visiting www.strangebedfellowstheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions may be found at www.theatreinchicago.com.