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BWW Reviews: Jobsite's Inventive INVENTING VAN GOGH at the Shimberg

"Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum." --Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to his brother, Theo

On a hot summer evening in 1890, Vincent Van Gogh, unofficial patron saint of struggling artists, couldn't take that "irresistible momentum" anymore. As the story goes, he walked alone in a quiet wheat field and shot himself in the chest. It took two days for him to die and, in one of art's great ironies, found immortality only in death, ranking with da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Picasso as the world's most recognizable artist. Sometime before his shooting, he painted "Wheat Field with Crows" in one of the fields surrounding Auvers-sur-Oise. It was his very last painting.

Or was it?

In Jobsite Theater's newest show, and their last show of the season, Stephen Dietz's INVENTING VAN GOGH, there is speculation that another, undiscovered Van Gogh painting is out there somewhere. The reasoning: He painted forty self-portraits in his short lifetime, yet he didn't paint a single one in the last ten months of his life. Why? Obviously, the speculation goes, he actually did paint another one and it is lost.

This is where the show opens, with a dodgy art dealer (Ned Avrill Snell) wanting to hire cynical artist Patrick Stone (Scott Fisher) to create a forgery of the missing Van Gogh work. Patrick has been in an artistic funk, and on top of his current "painter's block," he also cannot stand Van Gogh's work (or the work of almost any other artist). From Patrick's current circumstances, the show jumps in time, back and forth, between the 1890 world of Van Gogh and Patrick's current world. These two time periods oftentimes even merge, but the timeline hopscotch is never once confusing for those paying close attention.

The show builds to that key moment when Van Gogh shot himself, a moment literally mirrored by Patrick's beloved mentor, Dr. Miller (Greg Thompson), who traces Van Gogh's life to that fateful moment. It's elegiac, yet captivating as it follows Van Gogh's obsessive drive to create and Stone's unearthing the lost artist within himself as he attempts to duplicate Van Gogh's missing portrait.

INVENTING VAN GOGH runs smoothly, with director Karla Hartley confidently at the helm, steering the show with creative, seamless blocking. The three-windowed set is appropriate, and the artworks taped to the walls in Act 2, mostly self-portraits, are fine selections from the Van Gogh oeuvre. I could have done without the sporadic slides/power point images that don't give us a sense of the burst of colors necessary when exploring Van Gogh's work; the effect comes across as an aberration.

The good news is the script of INVENTING VAN GOGH is a beautifully written time-skipping love letter to art history, an accurate examination of the struggles each artist (not just Van Gogh) faces in the creation of something new, and a mystery in a world that has a hard time telling the difference between what is genuine and what is imagination.

Even better news is that the production features a uniformly excellent cast under Hartley's expert direction. They are five strong actors, and even if their odd mixture of accents doesn't always work, they give outstanding performances.

Steve Fisher, as the frustrated central character, has perhaps the most difficult part, mainly because we see the action of the play, the past and the present, through his eyes. Much of what he does is in response to the other characters. It's always a treat to watch an actor listening, actively listening, and Fisher achieves this superbly. At least he only has to play one character; other actors in the show have to play two separate roles, and each one flexes his or her acting muscles and struts their stuff by playing these distinctive, diverse people. Nicole Jeannine Smith is the only female in the cast and she wonderfully portrays two romantic interests a century apart, as Stone's girlfriend, Haley, and as Van Gogh's love interest, Marguerite.

Ned Averill Snell starts the play as the morally reprehensible Bouchard, but then, in his second role, jolts the show with crack comic timing, playing Van Gogh's rival-friend, Paul Gauguin, as sort of a drunken Ignatius Reilly. The part is always quite showy in whatever play or movie the character appears in (it even won Anthony Quinn an Oscar in the movie "Lust for Life"). Snell gives the type of performance that audiences respond ecstatically to--big, brassy, over the top. He doesn't even come close to resembling the great Gauguin, but he certainly inhabits his ribald soul. (Would adding a mustache have hurt, or would it have come across as too cheesy in a show devoid of cheesiness? We know Gauguin donned one in 1890, and perhaps it would have helped complete the picture.)

Which leads us to the essential part of Vincent Van Gogh. Michelangelo always said he was freeing the figure trapped in a block of marble; similarly, Van Gogh believed his art came directly from nature ("the image needs not be invented," he says in the show). Jordan Foote, as Van Gogh, with his sad eyes and red hair and beard, certainly looks like a less-edgy version of this manic Dutchman whose increasingly twisted self-portraits haunt us. And he is a commanding actor with a sure sense of the stage, but does he capture the essence of Van Gogh? Vincent had such a notoriously fiery demeanor, the obsessive need to create, to not just make art, but to bleed it. Foote is solid, and thankfully, he doesn't fall into the growling one-note trap of Kirk Douglas in "Lust for Life." He doesn't play it obvious--some Munch-like screamer. (The Shimberg is an intimate space, and such acting pyrotechnics would certainly ring false.) But Foote may have sometimes overcompensated to the opposite extreme and taken away some of that well-known Van Gogh fire from him, with the exception of some very strong moments in Act 2.

Two sequences in the show are exhilarating and both of them involve the fifth actor in the play, Greg Thompson, who portrays Dr. Miller as well as Van Gogh's physician, Dr. Gachet. In one beautifully staged instant, he, as Dr. Miller, and Van Gogh mirror each other as they build toward both of their final, tragic ends. Foote and Thompson stand on opposite sides of the stage and recreate two tragedies from two different centuries at the same time. Each movement is precise and, even though the actors stand on separate sides of the stage, it becomes a sort of a strange Valse Triste. It's beautifully haunting.

Thompson's other moment is a small one, but it may be my favorite instance in the play, when the actor changes from Gachet to Miller during a single line of dialogue and with the mere placement of a pair of glasses onto his face. It is so fluid, so perfect, the past uniting with the present in front of our very eyes. Just exquisite.

INVENTING VAN GOGH is not some yawn-worthy venture to "the cold light of distant museums." It is art breathed into life, like Van Gogh's work. The artist once said, "The dead live among us." And with painting that is true (art as immortality). It is also true of the theater, maybe even truer, because when we watch a play, the art literally is breathed into existence by actors saying lines that were originally just words on a page written long ago. This is the magic of INVENTING VAN GOGH, where we get to spend two hours with one of the most impassioned and enigmatic figures of the past 150 years. And we get to see what his sad last days were like, helping us understand this artist who was passion personified.

Jobsite has an incredible play on its hands; their last production of the season also happens to be one of their best. So do yourself a favor and don't miss out on that "irresistible momentum," that pulse of life, that painting and particularly the theater--and particularly this theater--have to offer.

Jobsite Theater's INVENTING VAN GOGH runs until August 3rd (Thursdays thru Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 4:00 pm) at the Shimberg Playhouse in the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. For tickets, call (813) 229-7827.

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