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by Ashley Pabilonia with contributions by Stephanie Whitehall
There are few people in the artistic crowd who wouldn't recognize the name Vincent Van Gogh. Though he holds a long-lasting, posthumous influence upon art history, one may wonder whether it's his paintings or the legacy behind them that make him and his body of work so valued. It's this and other questions about art and life that Jobsite Theater's rendition of Steven Dietz's Inventing Van Gogh explores through narrative temporal shifts and emotional intensity.
The play starts with Patrick, a no-name artist, staring at a blank canvas from different angles, pacing up to and around it, and hurling his brush at the canvas. Bouchard enters -- or rather, sneaks into the studio and startles him before making a proposition. Despite Bouchard's reputation as a "skeptic" who proves paintings as fabrications rather than an artist's original work, he wants Patrick to paint a piece believed to be Vincent Van Gogh's final self-portrait, rumored but never proven to actually exist. Patrick wants nothing to do with the plot, but Bouchard hints that he knows about Patrick's connection to the death of Dr. Miller, the latter's mentor and a Van Gogh devotee. If he won't follow through with the plan, Bouchard just may slip a word to the authorities. Patrick unwittingly finds himself a player in the scam, and the stress of the task and the memories it unearths take their toll not just on him; Haley, his old flame and Dr. Miller's daughter, wants a resolution for her resentment towards her father for neglecting her in pursuit for the elusive last Van Gogh portrait.
For me, the second half of the play is less about keeping up with the different storylines within both eras than witnessing the impassioned diatribes delivered and the emotions poured out during them. Patrick's inability to start his Van Gogh forgery feeds into the famous artist's reflexive questioning whether or not he's a phantom trying to scour purpose and meaning out of his artwork, especially as he rapidly descends into howling madness. Haley and Marguerite fall into similar existential despair over their loved ones looking at but not truly "seeing" them. Dr. Miller's obsession with Van Gogh ultimately comes up empty because he's unable to find the supposed last portrait, and like his artist hero emotionally devolves until he dies of a gunshot wound -- self-inflicted or assisted, it's never confirmed.
Uncertainty is a major factor in the play's profundity. It explains how people invent and believe in stories to comfort themselves or to attribute worth to an otherwise inanimate, hollow object. Haley refuses to let Patrick tell his version of Dr. Miller's final moments because believing Patrick is the murderer gives her hope that her father did love her but died before they could reconcile, rather than ended his own life to possibly escape taking responsibility for abandoning her. Patrick shares his distaste of Van Gogh's work and even bemoans that the painter wouldn't be considered an idol if his life wasn't so tortured. And the circumstances of Van Gogh's death are still unknown, which leaves room for Patrick to "invent" his own version as he completes and unveils his fake Van Gogh portrait. Whether factual or fictitious, each of these stories are their own truth to the beholder.
The play suggests that stories give artworks their value but also theorizes about art as a concept. Do brushstrokes and technique make a piece art, or does the medium in which it's created determine so? Perhaps artistry is in its intent to start creating with an idea in mind or go with the flow to a point of completion. Is art more about the depicted subject or the feelings conveyed through the shapes and colors? The definition of "art" varies between person to person, and the play never offers an authoritative "right" answer on the topic, again emphasizing its thematic uncertainty.
Jobsite's production of Inventing Van Gogh rings with a heart-wrenching emotionality. Fans of traditional, linear narratives may not enjoy the ride through what my friend Stephanie called the play's "time-traveling schizophrenia." Keeping up with each of the story threads is admittedly arduous. However, I decided it was okay to lose track of the storylines and lose myself in the characters' raw intensity, especially in the second half when everyone's issues boil to the brim and they desperately search for the answers to their unresolved issues. It hurt to see Jordan Foote's Van Gogh go from eagerly searching for his artistic "glow" to crumbling into himself the more unsure he becomes about capturing it for good. Part of me thought that Steve Fisher's Patrick was pretentious for disregarding Van Gogh as an artist but also ironically easy to relate to in his almost millenial-styled "edgy" artist persona. Ned Averill-Snell (Bouchard/Gauguin), Nicole Jeannine Smith (Haley/Marguerite), and Greg Thompson (Dr. Miller/Gachet) taking up different costumes, mannerisms, and accents to switch between their characters' counterparts was a fun, fourth wall-breaking treat to watch.
The set design added an extra layer to the play's thematic consciousness. What appeared to be an elevated platform was in fact a wooden coffin -- a subtle symbol that reminds the characters and the audience about the gravity of Van Gogh's death, especially as he lay wounded upon it. The play's thematic mysteriousness and moody questioning were highlighted -- literally -- by the scenic lighting. Before the play began, the art studio set was low lit by muted yellows and blues shining through the windows. Night sky and oceanic blues washed over the walls and windows before Act Two's emotional fallout. Throughout the play, some of Van Gogh's paintings were light-projected on the windows and walls to set the tone for different moments. My favorite one was when The Starry Night shone upon the cast as Van Gogh laments being homesick for a "land of paintings" and concludes the play.
Armed with fiery cast performances and smart set structure, Jobsite Theater's version of Inventing Van Gogh will leave audiences questioning what they know about the notorious painter -- and much more. That's perhaps the most beautiful part about the production's take on the play.