BWW Reviews: Jim Briggs Portrays Compelling VINCENT van Gogh in the Berkshires
To introduce his New Theatre Company, Williamstown actor Jim Briggs has chosen a most ingenious play VINCENT, a work that truly delivers the vibrancy of Vincent van Gogh's "shooting-comet of a life". The play as written by Leonard Nimoy is intimate, sincere and most convincing in its portrayal of Vincent and his brother, Theo. An independent production under the direction of Brant Pope, we attended opening night on Friday, December 14.
In VINCENT, Actor Jim Briggs takes a painterly approach to telling the story of the life of Vincent van Gogh. Low key and restrained, he lets the words carry the story. He lays down the basic brush strokes slowly at the beginning, reading from the hundreds of letters exchanged between the artist and his brother, Theo van Gogh, in a simple, straightforward voice. As the details accumulate, a fascinating tale emerges as this first production by the Starry Night Theatre Company debuts on the St. Germain Stage of the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center in Pittsfield, MA.
The Berkshires of Western Massachusetts welcomed the company with an almost full house, a near miracle for something without elves, grinches, scrooges or nutcrackers during the dark December days. Then again, this rural region is renowned for having almost as many theatre companies as cows.
The original play, as written by Leonard Nimoy, divides the play into two sections, the first in which we learn about the artist from his brother Theo through their letters to each other, and the second in which Theo talks directly to the audience about Vincent. It is a simple dramatic device that makes Act One purely expository, and Act Two not only dramatic, but revelatory.
Under the direction of Brant Pope, Jim Briggs portrays the story mostly as Theo, though at times, with a change of light, stance and voice, he also becomes Vincent, who then speaks for himself, and we discover the human being behind the legends and myths. The portrait Theo paints slowly fills in as the brush strokes multiply on his theatrical canvas, and by the end of the first half we know that Vincent and Theo were the sons of a minister, which explains the spiritual aspects the artist, and that both also practiced the most basic form of Christianity, that is, charity and compassion, towards each other, and their community. We learn that Vincent wanted to become a pastor and from 1879 he worked as a missionary in a mining region in Belgium where he began to sketch people from the local community. It was not long before he had the revelation that God wanted him to paint, not preach.
Once started on his path as a full time artist we find him constantly on the move, and no matter what hand life dealt him, his work grew in depth and honesty, and as a result he earned his place as a post-Impressionist painter whose work, notable for its rough beauty, emotional honesty and bold color, had a far-reaching influence on 20th-century art.
With this play, Jim Briggs returns to the theatre from whence he came. When he was younger he studied with Robert Y. Burns of Starlight Theatre in Williamstown, MA, and later appeared with the Williamstown Theatre Festival" and other regional companies. Between acting roles, he attended Boston College Law School and became a practicing attorney in Boston and the Berkshires. Now retired from the law, he has returned to his first passion, theatre.
What is interesting about Jim Briggs and this production of VINCENT is the almost lawyerly approach to VINCENT, both in the Nimoy script and what you ultimately see on the St. Germain stage. He has paid scrupulous attention to the details of the entire enterprise. His hair, beard and costume perfectly duplicate the image of Theo van Gogh we see at the end of the play. The minimal set pieces are of the correct time period, grouped together in little settings that enable Briggs to move back and forth across the stage as he retrieves one letter or another. Dominating the upstage wall is a large framed screen upon which the drawings, watercolors and paintings of the artist are projected, and they are carefully coordinated to match the years in which the letters were written.