Vincent Van Gogh (van GOKH, not as actor James Briggs pronounces, Van GO) 1853-1890. is considered one of our most important Impressionist painters. His emotional approach to subject matter, color, movement, and thickly applied texture had far reaching influence on modern art. During a lifetime of struggle, however, despite best efforts by his devoted brother, Theo, a gallery owner, he sold only one painting, Red Vineyard for 400 francs. Apparently Vincent had many excuses which denied his brother permission to exhibit work. He appeared to want things to be privately sold, not having to face an opinionated public.
Theo Van Gogh was the sole, consistent, psychological and financial support in his brother’s short life. This script is based on 500 letters that passed between them. Its premise is that Theo, having been overwhelmed at his brother’s funeral, had been unable to speak and needs to tell (us) his story; to defend Vincent’s importance to history, and to testify that his brother was not, in fact, as many believed, mad.
Because of extreme behavior in his life, including cutting off an ear and committing suicide, there are endless theories about Vincent Van Gogh’s mental balance. Some conjecture he had vision problems which evoked expressionistic images. We do know he was diagnosed with epilepsy later in life and dealt with horrific seizures. Other theories include schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, syphilis, and poisoning from swallowed paints. Theo suggests the artist had hallucinations.
Narrative addresses Vincent’s failed, largely self-sacrificial attempt to become a preacher like his father and grandfather, his ill-fated attempts at romantic relationships, and the revelation of his true calling. Theo claims Paul Gauguin, whom Vincent looked up to with feelings bordering on worship, was a damaging influence.
There are letters from the coal-mining district of Borinage, Belgium where he did missionary work, Paris, Arles, the clinic in Saint-Rémy and Auvers-sur-Oise where Vincent moved to be near sympathetic psychiatrist, Dr. Gachet, who had experience treating painters. Earlier, less fraught time in The Hague and London are omitted. Excerpts are read aloud. We also ostensibly hear Vincent’s voice, which is, unfortunately for the production, the same as Theo’s.
Hit or miss projections accompany monologue. We linger long on that which is shown. While too many slides would be distracting, there are better examples of many depicted periods in the artist’s life. Nor should original work be flopped- ever. For those who are unfamiliar, however, this illuminates.
The linchpin to the production is, of course, its performance. Alas, James Briggs is at no point believable. His Theo embodies neither the dignity nor conservatism reflected in correspondence. We don’t believe the letters move him, see little sign of frustration but a rise in volume, and have no sense of real- time recollection. Briggs is all surface.
Director, Dr. Brant Pope paced the piece and efficiently moves his actor around the stage. What should be stirring is merely informative and because we’re rarely engaged, feels long.
James Brigg’s Scenic Design is minimal, but effective. Barbara Pope’s Costume choice is spot on.
Performance Photos by Russ Roland
Opening: James Briggs
Theo Van Gogh, Vincent Van Gogh
Starry Night Theater Company presents
Vincent by Leonard Nimoy
Based on the play Van Gogh by Phillip Stephens
Featuring James Briggs
Directed by Dr. Brant Pope
Theatre at St. Clement’s
423 W 46th Street
Through June 5, 2016