The Herberger's center stage this week is splattered with paint and piled high with blank canvases. This carefully arranged mess (which bursts frequently into colorful life, thanks to Rick Paulsen's extravagant lighting) is where Steven Dietz's Inventing Van Gogh -- the author's fourth play to be commissioned by Arizona Theatre Company -- unfolds. Like a van Gogh painting, Dietz's story is a gorgeous example of excess, one that remakes reality with broad, well-chosen brush strokes.
Dietz has grafted a modern whodunit onto an art history lesson in the tale of Patrick, a painter whose much-loved mentor, Dr. Jonas Miller, has recently killed himself on the anniversary of van Gogh's suicide. Miller had devoted his life to finding van Gogh's final self-portrait, a painting that few believe exists, and had abandoned his young daughter in his search.
Enter Rene, an oily art authenticator who weeds out forgeries and occasionally commissions one of his own. He blackmails Patrick, who may have had something to do with Dr. Miller's death, into producing a fake of the portrait Miller was seeking. By accepting the assignment, Patrick betrays both his mentor and his former lover, Miller's daughter, Hallie. He also enters into a hallucinatory world in which he's visited by van Gogh himself and, later, the late artist's lovers and friends as well.
Each of the narratives is a complex variation on the other. By interweaving the lives of Patrick, a frustrated young painter, and van Gogh, whom he is channeling, Dietz throws the very nature of existence into flux. Is van Gogh, who history tells us was mentally unstable and an imbiber of turpentine, hallucinating Patrick? Or is Patrick haunted by the man whose work he dares to copy?
Both positions are affirmed and contradicted in the play and, happily, Dietz doesn't offer just one answer in the end. Instead, we're offered a pair of portraits of men who struggle to see themselves outside the context of their art. If the playwright had rendered his story in an ordinary, representational manner, the play's landscape would be just another dysfunctional family drama, another murder mystery or ghost story with a twist. He dodges the obvious "What is art?" hoo-ha, asking instead, "What do we want from artists?"
Dietz tempers this lofty question with quick shifts into comedy, like the scene in which the apparition (van Gogh: "Pile it on!") gives a painting lesson to the impostor (Patrick: "Aw, come on, Vinny! Give me a break!"). Dietz occasionally indulges in apocryphal banter of the "what would these fellows from different eras say if they met?" sort; the best of these exchanges occurs when van Gogh, unaware of the subject of Patrick's forgery, tries to guess whose portrait he's creating.
When Dietz occasionally overextends a scene, the pitch of David Ira Goldstein's direction strains in tandem. Mostly, though, Goldstein handles the script's quick-change quagmires deftly, as does a solid cast who trod the defiant rake of Scott Weldin's marvelous set design with deceptive ease.
Jennifer Erin Roberts creates two very distinct women, neither of whom is meant to be appealing. As the thinly written Marguerite, she's an annoying trifle, but her Hallie is smug and stubborn, too surly to be likable, but hard to ignore when she's onstage. Lee Sellars, perfectly grim as the angry young painter, is often made to stand on the sidelines, glowering in disbelief and confusion at the apparitions before him. When he does emote, he radiates anger and good humor with equal candor. As van Gogh, Dan Donohue affects a charismatic combination of serenity and madness, a subtle performance that's overshadowed when it shares the stage with Tom Ramirez's delightful caricature of Gauguin.
Dietz's portrait of van Gogh provides more than an annotated biography of his life. At evening's end, we're left with the author's resounding opinions on art and artifice, and provoked by his constant query into which is greater: van Gogh's art, or his violent myth.
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