Story: An angry young artist sits in a dingy studio in a dilapidated warehouse. He seems miserable with his artistic output and a caliber that he finds unsatisfying. His day is made increasingly more complicated, though, when he is visited by an art authenticator of his acquaintance. Mr. Bouchard informs the artist, Patrick Stone, that he wants to commission Stone to create a forgery of Vincent van Gogh’s final self-portrait, a mythical masterpiece that long has been rumored was created by the tortured artist shortly before his death in 1890.
Stone spurns Bouchard’s request, but the latter perseveres in his plot. Bouchard says he’s commissioned another artist to paint the “authentic” original, and he expects to become quite wealthy when the latter is sold to some unsuspecting aficionado. As Stone debates the merits of participating in such chicanery, he recalls visits by his mentor, art historian Dr. Miller, and Miller’s own analysis of the tormented Dutch genius who painted 37 self-portraits between 1886 and 1889. Surely van Gogh, obsessed with chronicling his own life, created one more view of himself in his final year, correct? That is the supposition that Bouchard believes will bring him undeserved wealth.
Highlights: Steven Dietz is a contemporary playwright prolific in his own right, having penned more than 40 plays either written originally by him or adapted from other sources. Efforts such as Private Eyes, More Fun than Bowling and Becky’s New Car have been performed on local stages in the last couple of decades. Now, add to that list Dietz’s intriguing whodunit from 2004, Inventing van Gogh, which is receiving its local premiere under the direction of Steve Callahan at West End Players Guild.
Other Info: One point is certain: A second viewing or reading of Dietz’s convoluted drama doubtless could explain details that seem fuzzy or forgotten upon first glance. While the playwright cleverly sets up his conceit in the first act, developments in the second act uncover more red herrings than a fish hatchery, and not all of them are convincing.
It doesn’t help, either, when the cast consists of just five players, one of whom never is convincing in his portrayals. This weakens the entire production to the point of exasperation, diluting the emotional and intellectual impact that Dietz anticipates.
Callahan sets the stage cleverly with a superbly atmospheric set designed by Ken Clark that epitomizes the grungy, dark and dirty world inhabited by Stone in the first act. It’s a world of muted colors and stifled passion that is turned upside down in the second act with the addition of several garishly colorful Van Gogh reproductions created by Marjorie Williamson which fill the bottom half of the two-tiered stage, the portion inhabited by van Gogh a century earlier.
Renee Sevier-Monsey’s lighting design underscores key scenes for effect, along with Chuck Lavazzi’s sound design, while Tracey Ann Newcomb’s costumes range from the drab (Stone’s listless attire) to the flamboyant (the Bohemian look adopted by Miller’s estranged daughter and Stone’s former lover, Hallie).
With such a meandering script, it’s paramount that performers guide the audience along the story’s convoluted avenues, but the West End Players Guild production is uneven in this regard. Ron Haglof, as Dr. Miller and also Dr. Gachet, van Gogh’s own troubled physician for a short time, is unconvincing in his roles and too often is an irritant to the proceedings.
Reginald Pierre is problematic as well as Stone. Pierre’s rage and disgust too often seem contrived rather than the result of artistic idiosyncrasies. Nellie Ognacevic brings some spirit and fire to the role of the sardonic Hallie, but the relationship between Hallie and Stone seems superficially developed by Dietz, while the dialogue between Hallie and her father is too often painfully trite. Ognacevic effectively portrays Dr. Gachet’s daughter Marguerite, who loves van Gogh and is driven by a desire to be his muse.
The show’s best performances are rendered by Jake Ferree as van Gogh and Tom Kopp in the roles of Bouchard and 19th century painter Paul Gauguin. Ferree conveys the antic personality of van Gogh, bouncing emotionally and physically around the stage like a human pinball in his ruminations and fits of creativity. Kopp is cool and cunning as the shady authenticator and pompous and gruff as Gauguin, who is more annoyed than impressed with his counterpart.
When all is said and done, Inventing van Gogh is populated mostly by characters who are neither likable in their actions nor admirable in their relationships. While Dietz has written a potentially intriguing detective fiction wrapped around historical figures, the West End Players Guild presentation fails to ignite a spark of compassion in at least some audience members. No painting can disguise that.
Play: Inventing Van Gogh
Group: West End Players Guild
Venue: Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union Blvd.
Dates: October 11, 12, 13, 14
Tickets: $20; contact 367-0025 or WestEndPlayers.org
Rating: A 3 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb