BWW Reviews: Intriguing INVENTING VAN GOGH at Jobsite Theater
When I think back on my time in college, I can still clearly see the commonalities that linked me to the rest of the student body. We were all trying to find ourselves. In the meantime, we were panicking over exams; gorging on cheap, greasy pizza; signing up for credit cards we couldn't pay off to get shirts we didn't need; and hanging prints of famous paintings all over our dorm rooms. Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Magritte's The Son of Man. Gustav Klimt's The Kiss. I had The Starry Night in poster AND mouse pad form. I had my fair share of Pollocks and Munchs, too, but Van Gogh was my go to.
I had a roommate one year who was an art student and I once praised the quality of a Van Gogh copy she had done for a class. I remember her sneer as clear as day. She hated the assignment, the popularity of mass produced copies for profit (she was not allowed in my room), and Van Gogh's style in general. This roommate may have gotten along very well with one of the main characters in Steven Dietz's Inventing Van Gogh, which opened Friday night at Jobsite Theater. I was able to catch the first preview on Wednesday.
Patrick Stone (Steve Fisher) is a Van Gogh-hating painter suffering from artist's block. He is approached by an unscrupulous art dealer (Ned Averill-Snell) who convinces (read: blackmails) him into attempting to produce a forgery of Van Gogh's last work - which may or may not actually exist. This is only one of a mélange of plots combined in this play. There's a questionable death, two variations of love stories, and the tale of Van Gogh's trouble past (prostitutes, amputations and all).
Fisher, in his first Jobsite production, presents a Stone that is ornery and conflicted. Compared to the others in the play, he speaks relatively little. To an extent, he is as much an observer as the audience is. Fisher effectively serves as an anchor through Dietz's theatrical, temporal fantasy.
Averill-Snell's dealer, Bouchard, is smarmy and unlikeable. His exits are abrupt and comical, and you're not sad to see him leave. He also plays Paul Gauguin, an artist whose company and validation Van Gogh seems to desperately crave. Gauguin is loud, drunk and boisterous; a riot in suspenders. In him, Averill-Snell creates both a friend and foe for Van Gogh. Their relationship comes across as genuinely passionate and volatile, and half of this authenticity can be credited to the talents of bay area newcomer, Jordan Foote who plays Van Gogh.
With Foote's ginger hair and beard, coupled with his costume (designed by Bailee Booser), he is a walking, talking breathing portrait of the artist. His Van Gogh is charming and full of fervor. He has silent moments of action where he still manages to draw in your attention, despite not being the focal point of the scene. You can't help but wonder what he's doing, what he's thinking; if this is the moment when he completely snaps.
We meet Dr. Miller (Greg Thompson) who serves as narrator, character, victim and villain. A stunning debut on the Jobsite stage, Thompson presents a man who transitions from fan to obsessive to shell. We learn about the depths of his devotion to the painter, juxtaposed with his infidelity to his family; namely his daughter Haley (Nicole Jeannine Smith). Smith's Haley is quick witted, sexy, and slightly embittered. The rational for this unfolds seamlessly on stage.
Thompson and Smith also play secondary characters; Gachet, Van Gogh's doctor during his recovery, and his lover, Marguerite, respectively. It's interesting watching the actors transform; seeing both the resemblances and variations between their individual performances. Dr. Miller/Gachet and Haley/Marguerite serve as foils for one another, and even more layers to the show.
The set design (by Brian Smallheer), in association with the lights (by Kaylin Gess) and sound (by Director, Karla Hartley) transport you beyond the stage, into several of Van Gogh's famous works. If you're lucky enough to sit in the front row, a paintbrush might go whizzing by your head. You can't really push beyond the 4th wall more than that.
The weakest part of the production rested with the accents. In their defense, it is difficult to fake a French accent without sounding like a caricature. You aim for Gérard Depardieu & end up more Pepé Le Pew. For a love language, it's one that's easy to hate. Though potentially intentional, the unconvincing enunciations sometimes become a distraction.
Though slightly labyrinthine, the intermingling stories ultimately create an intriguing evening of theater. At the end of my viewing, I scored a print of one of Van Gogh's post mutilation self-portraits. It'll hang somewhere in my apartment, because old habits die hard. I'll be sure to send a picture of it to my old roommate.
Inventing Van Gogh runs until August 3.
Photo Credit: Crawford Long