A look at the myth of the tortured artist with the Asolo Rep’s Inventing Van Gogh.
By Kay Kipling
The tortured life of Vincent van Gogh has provided good fodder for a number of plays, films, books and even a song or two. Latest in the lineup: Steven Dietz’s Inventing Van Gogh, onstage in an Asolo Repertory Theatre production.
The setup is intriguing: The curtain opens on an artist named Patrick Stone (Jason Peck), pacing around his studio easel as a storm rages outside. He’s soon visited by a French art expert (David Breitbarth), who wants him to attempt a forgery of a missing—and possibly never really painted—Van Gogh self-portrait. Why would Patrick do such a thing? It’s all tied up with the death of his mentor and friend, Dr. Jonas Miller (James Leaming), who had become obsessed with Van Gogh and especially with the idea of that final self-portrait, to the point of ignoring his daughter, Hallie (Heather Kelley), who in turn has had her own failed relationship with Patrick.
The plot gets even thicker when Patrick, who’s been drinking a good bit, starts hallucinating Van Gogh himself (Dan Donohue) and having long, revealing conversations with him. From there on the time flips back and forth between Vincent’s last days at the home of Dr. Gachet (also played by Leaming), who has a neglected daughter of his own (again, Kelley) and to the present time and Patrick’s dilemma.
Again, it’s a promising proposition, and Dietz’s dialogue, especially between Vincent and Patrick, is often enthralling to listen to. And some of the portrayals, most notably Donohue’s Vincent (leavened here with welcome flashes of humor), Leaming’s dual roles (his Gachet is a doctor afraid of surgery), and David Breitbarth as the robust Paul Gauguin (more successful with this role than playing the French mastermind of the scheme, who comes off a little like the main Nazi in Raiders of the Lost Ark), are compelling.
But ultimately, Inventing Van Gogh is rather frustrating. It’s hard to tell if the fault lies in the play itself or the production, but Peck’s Patrick comes across as a cipher, and his and other motivations here remain murky even to the end. Kelley is affecting as Marguerite Gachet, who has her own interest in Vincent; but her role as Hallie has her either playing overly angry or crying, which gets to be annoying.
With the often gorgeous lighting of Chris Ostrom (bringing to life Vincent’s favored yellows) and the eternal appeal of trying to figure out what makes Vincent—or any artist—tick, Inventing Van Gogh has its rewards. But too much feels unsatisfying by evening’s end.
Inventing Van Gogh continues in rotating rep through April 16; for tickets call 351-8000 or go to asolo.org.