The Ensemble for The Romantic Century combines theater, fine art, classical music and song as if concocting a gourmet meal, one course affecting the next with overall intention and sensibility. Utilizing intimate letters from Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo, Van Gogh’s Ear illuminates the life of the artist during years in Arles and vicinity until self-inflicted death by pistol.
Vincent frequently used analogies between music and painting comparing sensory aspects of his work to harmony, dissonance, tonality. Aesthetic connection seemed natural. “By his own admission, he exaggerated colors in the same manner that a musician improvises through sounds…” (Musicologist James Melo) This production integrates French music of the late 19th Century because of its sensory qualities or what Melo calls “the color of sound”.)
Chad Johnson, Carter Hudson
Dutch Post-Impressionist Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was an art dealer and missionary before painting full time at the sufferance of his brother Theo, an art dealer who provided lifelong emotional and financial support. He neglected his physical health and was often ill. Assaulted by voices, hallucinations, and (perhaps epileptic) fits, van Gogh spent the last years of his life at psychiatric hospitals. He’s perhaps best known for a richness of visceral texture, color and movement taken up by the Fauves who succeeded him. Not until the early 20th Century did a single artwork of his sell.
1888 “There is no blue without yellow, without orange…” Vincent (Carter Hudson) is speaking aloud, writing to Theo (tenor, Chad Johnson) during a parentheses when hallucinations have abated. Debussy is performed by strings and piano at the excellence level of Carnegie Hall.
Drawing, initial color, and then finished painting of the artist’s bedroom at Arles appear on an easel’s blank canvas. The back wall fills with stars/white specs which morph into shimmering orbs from his art, light vividly swirling around each. Vincent describes what he sees. Theo holds a letter. Johnson is not only a fine tenor, but manifests focus and emotion when not speaking. He has presence and embroiled stillness that serves the role.
Vincent writes to Theo about scenic impressions and strained artistic ambitions. He repeatedly asks for money palpably wracked with guilt. “I’ve had 23 cups of coffee (instead of food) and bread I’ve yet to pay for…I’m losing my teeth…the paintings are worthless…” Theo’s response is embodied by Debussy’s “Beau Soir” :…a plea for happiness/seems to rise from all things/and climb up to the troubled heart… (French lyrics are projected in translation)
We see sunflowers, irises, poppies, wheat fields, cypresses…images of the village café and its denizens…Vincent describes his artistic “process” in start/stop delivery that makes it feel as if he’s grasping for words. Everything comes from a place of passion or exhaustion. Music by Gabriel Fauré is fevered. The artist sketches.
Carter Hudson, Renee Tatum
He describes a girl, a prostitute. We see mezzo-soprano Renee Tatum as Gabrielle Berlatier (in cotton petticoat, camisole and corset), the person to whom Vincent would “gift” his severed ear. She’s counting paper money. Later, her character sings perhaps the only ill-suited musical choice, Chausson’s “Chanson Perpetuelle”: The first evening he came here/my soul was at his mercy/and I no longer cared about pride…
In fact, there’s no record of any relationship with a particular whore – the painter’s only female company. Tatum is splendid in her ardor-filled perusal of his room. Her powerful voice seizes one. The performer also sympathetically plays Theo’s wife, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger.
Actor Carter Hudson (Vincent) inhabits struggle, madness, infirmity, exultation. Despite excessive stage time without dialogue, he neither hurries through action nor becomes over elaborate. Confusion and pain emanate from the gut, never exhibiting too much. Debilitation is unmistakable. The actor’s intense examination of that which his character sees- past us, over our heads, is mesmerizing.
Vincent describes surroundings and chronicles his feelings. Color and brush stroke of projected art reflect these. (Simultaneously showing part of three different paintings can get over busy and might be rethought.) Theo sings. Ear bandaged, Vincent moves to Hospital St. Remy. (The downgrade of bedding is a wonderful touch.) “In this place, you continually hear howls and cries…we’re members of the same family.”
Letter after letter is sent. The attacks return, dissipate, and resume. Let out, Vincent paints in the fields. Blossoms or crows fill the sky. Watching him pack supplies and set up, lay on his back in the sun, drink wine, and stare is a silent movie filled with expectation. A painted skull briefly appears. Music is foreboding. Vincent senses it. Until –
Playwright Eve Wolf did a masterful job of editing hundreds of letters, creating a cohesive story. Theo’s responses are replaced with poetic song. His nephew’s birth hardly seems pivotal to Vincent and could be jettisoned without loss. Though one understands why we don’t encounter the artist’s best friend and tempestuous housemate, influential Paul Gauguin – an additional character to flesh out, it’s curious that instead of meeting Doctor Gachet who befriended and treated the painter (homeopathicaly) at the end of his life, there’s an minor speech from Doctor Peyron head of Saint-Paul Asylum, his previous incarceration.
Director Donald T. Sanders fills parentheses of music with small, credible business for actors or depicts absorption. We know where and when we are at all times. Both vocalists and actors propel the scenario with vigorous presence. Integration of the visual and audible is almost seamless. Pacing, except for two particularly long musical passages not under his control, is eloquent.
Picture a black and white Set with the picture frame over a fireplace (home to Theo van Gogh), an empty canvas on an easel (Vincent van Gogh’s messy, minimal dwelling), and white panels from floor to ceiling extending diagonally across the stage floor. Add a white piano and chairs for musicians. (The rest is black.) Now imagine the walls, panels and floor as much blank canvases as those which are obvious. On these, visualize projections of van Gogh’s artwork so detailed we see paint texture, so large you may not be able to identify even familiar paintings.
Surmise that our eyes are subliminally directed from dramatic or musical vignette to vignette with a feast of related art everywhere else. Bravo Vanessa James (Set), David Bengali (Projection Design), Beverly Emmons (Lighting) Ms. James is also responsible for terrific costuming including musicians’ inspired apparel.
The piece is compelling, intriguing and a feast for ears and eyes.
Also featuring Kevin Spirtas as Dr. Peyron, Van Gogh’s physician at St. Remy
Production Photos by Shirin Tinati
Opening: Carter Hudson
Ensemble for The Romantic Century presents
Van Gogh’s Ear by Eve Wolf
Directed by Donald T. Sanders
Music by Claude Debussy, Gabriel Fauré, Ernest Chausson, Cesar Franck
Henry Hwang-violin, Yuval Herz-violin, Chieh-Fan Yiu-viola, Timotheos Petrin-Cello
Max Barros-piano, Renna Gutman-piano
The Pershing Square Signature Center Irene Diamond Stage
480 West 42nd Street
Through September 10, 2017
NEXT: Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein December 21, 2017- January 7, 2018