Vincent was supposed to be a two-actor play, not a one-man show. Or so our solo host informs us not too far into his 75-minute monologue about artist Vincent van Gogh. Who’s skipped the eulogy? Why Paul Gauguin, that pompous bastard! ““He has refused to come here tonight.”
Thus we are left, in this Theatre du Jour production at the District of Columbia Arts Center, with just local actor B. Stanley in the role of van Gogh’s brother Theo. The show, written and originally toured by Leonard Nimoy, is a remount of Stanley’s hit from the 2009 Capital Fringe Festival. It’s an affecting performance, not too maudlin, not too Art History 101, though the script does offer some trivia about the guy who birthed yellow and blue swirls into the world. Even if you have “Starry Night” emblazoned on your travel mug or Citibank card, I bet you didn’t know that van Gogh once worked as a chaplain in a coal mine, or that, to paint at night, he attached candles to the brim of his signature hat.
Sounds like a fire hazard, but then, the guy did have a reputation for being a self-flagellating nut.
But was he actually? Theo argues no, that his brother was afflicted with epilepsy, and that toward the end of his life, he lived in paralyzing fear of his next episode. Before he was institutionalized, van Gogh dealt with the sort of issues that could leave anyone in therapy: professional insecurity, romantic rejection, and a bad roommate situation.
That roommate would be Gaugin, who provided a live-in inferiority crisis around the time of the ear incident. While they worked easel-by-easel in the French town of Arles, van Gogh was given to comparison games. Seems he was rather hard on himself, even if comparing his sunflowers to Gaugin’s Tahitian beauties hardly seems fair.
But in 1889, sunflowers weren’t selling. Van Gogh felt he failed in love, life, and art, his brother tells us. He loved the poor, the lost, the outcast, and the destitute. Even “a bastard like Gauguin!” Theo says. “For God’s sake, Vincent—-when will you ever learn to love yourself?”
Much of the text comes from surviving letters that the two brothers exchanged. Ideally, Vincent should be a two-person play. And by that I mean Vincent van Gogh should emerge as a distinct personality. But a consistent change of voice and demeanor is missing from Stanley’s performance. Instead, he gives the artist a myriad of accents, including one that’s vaguely British and another that’s faintly French. There are awkward transitions into letters heard via Stanley’s recorded voiceovers, and that accent is straight, even-keeled American. Theo tells us his brother was a sensitive soul, but when reading off some of the artist’s most despairing lines, van Gogh comes off more like a blowhard.
When he’s speaking as the artist’s grieving brother, though, the actor is convincing. Stanley’s eyes dart across the audience with nervous sincerity. He dabs his brow on the simple study of a set. (Any antique dealers want to lend the Arts Center furniture that looks a little more 19th-century Parisian and a little less suburban thrift shop?) During musical interludes, several dozen van Gogh drawings and paintings scroll tastefully above the stage.
The music? Incidental selections that Georges Bizet wrote in 1872 for a play called The Maid of Arles. The composer was reportedly suffering from melancholy when he died at 36 three years later. He had a double heart attack after some opera called Carmen flopped. Poor guy. But what an appropriate use of his music. The point is to leave Vincent knowing not just more about the painter, but a little bit more about the tortured artist in most of us.
Vincent runs at the District of Columbia Arts Center to Oct. 8. $25.