Thursday, August 17, 2017

55 (2017-2018): Review: VAN GOGH'S EAR (seen August 16, 2017)

“The Power to Create”

In the pantheon of famous ears—think, for example, Clark Gable, Mr. Spock, and Dumbo the Elephant—none are as notorious as the one that the mentally unstable Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh, in 1888, partially self-amputated in a fit of madness. The event (whose generally accepted circumstances were disputed in a 2009 book) figures briefly in Van Gogh’s Ear, an artsy concert-cum-art exhibition-cum-drama by pianist Eve Wolf, executive artistic director of Ensemble for a Romantic Century.
Carter Hudson. Photo: Shirin Tinati.
Wolf’s bio notes that ERC was founded by her in 2001 “with the mission of creating an innovative and dramatic concert format in which the emotions revealed in memoirs, letters, diaries, and literature are dramatically interwoven with music, thus bringing to life the sensations and passions of a bygone era.” This perfectly explains what she, director Donald Sanders, set and costume designer Vanessa James, lighting designer Beverly Emmons, and projection designer David Bengali are after in Van Gogh’s Ear. The results, however, are mixed.

Although musically marvelous and visually vibrant, Van Gogh’s Ear is dramatically dull. This might have be expected from a work whose spoken text is little more than a handful of the more than 650 letters written by van Gogh from Arles, in southern France, to his brother, Theo, a Paris art dealer. Without Theo’s financial support and encouragement, Vincent, who killed himself at 37, would have been lost much earlier.

Van Gogh’s Ear is inspired by the concept of synesthesia, which is both a neurological condition and an aesthetic theory in which, simply stated, one hears music in terms of colors; according to musicologist James Melo’s helpful program note, it’s possible that van Gogh was himself a synesthete. This allows us to view the eponymous ear as a metaphor.

To establish the connection between music and painting, Van Gogh’s Ear creates a multimedia experience on a stage that pictures a corner of van Gogh’s room at Arles at stage left, a neutral central space where an ensemble of musicians (piano and strings) sits, and, at stage right, Theo’s home; the latter is represented by a fireplace over whose mantel is a large frame in which various van Gogh paintings are digitally projected throughout the show’s overlong two hours.
Carter Hudson. Photo: Shirin Tinati.
The artist’s paintings are also projected on a canvas sitting near his Arles room, on the rear wall, and on three vertical pillars that continue along the floor as intersecting runners. A multitude of van Gogh images continues changing as the narrative progresses. Each letter is enacted by the bearded young actor Carter Hudson only to be followed by extended musical interludes selected from the music of contemporaneous composers, mostly Claude Debussy and Gabriel Fauré, with a smaller number from Ernest Chausson and César Franck.

The superb musicians are Henry Wang (violin), Yuval Herz (violin), Chieh-Fan Yiu (viola), Timotheos Petrin (cello), Max Barros (piano), and Renana Gutman (piano). For some reason, the men are dressed in white caftans and fez-like caps, suggesting Middle-Eastern Muslims; the best reason I could come up with is that they somehow allude to the Zouaves van Gogh encountered in Arles. In his paintings of them some wear similar caps but never caftans.
Carter Hudson, Renée Tatum. Photo: Shirin Tinati.
As Van Gogh speaks, we see other persons standing by silently relating to what’s being said. Most often it’s Theo (Chad Johnson), wearing a white linen suit, striking a variety of noble attitudes. Another is a buxom wench in 19th-century undergarments, Gabrielle Berlatier (Renée Tatum), the brothel maid (not prostitute, as played here) to whom van Gogh presented his ear (her identity was revealed only last year), and a third is the matronly Johanna van Gogh-Bonger (also Tatum), the woman Theo married. The only other speaking actor is Vincent’s physician, Dr. Peyron (Kevin Spirtas), who appears briefly as something of a dandy.

Theo, Gabrielle, and Johanna may not speak but they certainly do sing, gloriously, since Johnson and Tatum are both gifted opera artists. They perform art songs by Debussy, Fauré, and Chausson from the Romantic genre called mélodie, similar to German Lied, their French words projected in English subtitles over the fireplace. The densely lyrical poetry, filled with images of nature, contributes nothing to the narrative, serving principally as aesthetic reinforcement to the mood. If you find it bothersome to read the lyrics while also trying to watch and listen to the performers I recommend ignoring them and concentrating on the latter.
Chad Johnson, Carter Hudson. Photo: Shirin Tinati.
Van Gogh’s letters are preoccupied with concerns about his art—colors, stars, images he imagined, and technique—as well as with his personal well-being: his health, teeth, diet, mental illness, poverty, loneliness, unhappiness, intimations of suicide, and even his name (which the locals couldn’t pronounce properly). He’s grateful for Theo’s help and is happy Theo named his new son after him.
Carter Hudson. Shirin Tinati.
Without our hearing any response from anyone else, though, we see little more than the artist’s suffering before he blows his brains out (offstage). Perhaps a more powerful performance by Carter Hudson might have made van Gogh’s suffering theatrically palpable enough to overcome the script’s dramatic inertia. But his blandly uninteresting portrayal only demonstrates the danger lurking in Wolf’s conception: if you’re seeking to capture the spirit of so vigorous a personality as Vincent van Gogh’s, then you need more than beautiful music and gorgeous projections on your palette; you need an actor who brings comparable colors to the canvas, someone you can fully believe in when he says he cannot do without “the power to create,” someone with, dare I say it, a lust for life. Too bad a young Kirk Douglas isn’t available.


Pershing Square Signature Center
480 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through September 10