By Eve Wolfe; Directed by Donald T. Sanders
Produced by Ensemble for the Romantic Century
Off Broadway, Multimedia Play with Music
Runs through 9.10.17
Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street
by Ran Xia on 8.17.17
Chad Johnson and Carter Hudson in Van Gogh's Ear.
BOTTOM LINE: With live music, opera, and bursts of vibrant colors, Ensemble for the Romantic Century creates a multimedia monograph of Vincent Van Gogh.
The set seems clinical at first glance, with sterile white strips, sparsely laid between blue-tinted shadows, stretching across the stage into crossroads and paths through time. Light drops onto a lone easel carrying a blank canvas, and from there the first strokes of Van Gogh's paintings emerge: first a sketch, and then gradually the brightest yellow and red of the modest bedroom immortalized by those savage paint daubs (replicated as part of the set by Vanessa James.)
Van Gogh's Ear follows Van Gogh’s creative and personal life from 1888 to 1890, the prolific, yet also devastating, final two years of his life. The show offers a tender and sympathetic portrayal of the artist, depicting the disintegration of his mental state with simple poetic monologues in the form of letters from Vincent Van Gogh (Carter Hudson) to his brother Theo (Chad Johnson).
There is massive use of projection in this production: at least five projectors plot out the elaborate environment that displays various Van Gogh paintings, and the play happens as if inside of, and in between, them. The subtle and precise shifts remind me of the effects in Sunday in the Park With George. However, although designed with masterful skill by David Bengali, the use of projections here seems more decorative than instructive. Though some of the paintings are used as backgrounds that clearly pair with specific parts of Vincent's story, there are other moments when I wasn't sure whether there was supposed to be any significant connection between the two.
The structure of the piece is more dramatized concert/multimedia exhibition than a traditional play. A string quartet and piano accompany the scenes, along with operatic numbers by Theo and Johanna Van Gogh (Renée Tatum), which function both as responses to Vincent’s letters and different perspectives on the story. While aesthetically pleasing, I often found myself drifting away from the story during those moments, and struggled to follow the somewhat scattered scenes (supertitles provide translations of the songs).
Nevertheless, Van Gogh's Ear does a great job conveying a sense of the romantic desperation of the haunted character that is Vincent. He’s always been haunted, not by the past or his many troubles, but by the future—by what’s yet to come, the unknown, the possibilities, whether good or bad. There it is—as Vincent attacks his canvases with “pure sulfur yellow; pure golden citron” in perfect savagery, it is the purest and most desperate form of self expression. After all, Van Gogh was never trying to copy nature, but splaying himself onto the world he sometimes felt detached from. And when he finally cuts off his ear, we suppose it’s because of an urge to feel something real.
The creator’s soft spot for Vincent is clear, and artists especially will understand that there’s something incredibly moving about witnessing the glimpses of despair and exhilaration of this artist who was poor, dejected, utterly alone, and unfit to function on the same wavelength as the rest of his society. Paintings pour out of him, not because it’s a feel-good hobby, but because it’s the only thing keeping his unquiet mind focused.
The starry night and the cypress trees move with various shades of lights. If you’re unaware of the recent critically acclaimed film Loving Vincent, there have been new discoveries on the scientific significance of Van Gogh’s paintings. The way he painted the night sky depicts the motion of the stars in celestial space the way a long exposure photograph would do. However, like Tom Stoppard perfectly concluded, the savant in the wilderness might simply be a lunatic who happened upon a discovery beyond his understanding.
Hudson's portrayal of Vincent brings out a childlike innocence and charming neurosis. Still, the show's elegant style, due in part to the solemn and serene music by Debussy and others, left me hoping for more of the savagery Vincent kept searching for through his painting. After all, it's this savagery that is the most important part of his contribution to Impressionism, without which the work of the Blue Riders of Germany, Kandinsky, and even Pollack wouldn’t have come to be.
If you are an aficionado of classical chamber music and might enjoy a dynamic exhibition of Van Gogh's painting, you'll be thoroughly satisfied by this show. But those looking for traditional dramatic structure, or a biographical play about Van Gogh's life, may be less satisfied. Van Gogh's Ear is a highly concentrated dose of art appreciation and exploration into Van Gogh's savage and beautiful mind.
(Van Gogh's Ear plays at Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, through September 10, 2017. The running time is 2 hours 30 minutes with an intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30; Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 2. Tickets are $40 - $140 and are available at romanticcentury.org.)
Van Gogh's Ear is by Eve Wolfe. Directed by Donald T. Sanders. Scenic and Costume Design is by Vanessa James. Lighting Design is by Beverly Emmons. Projection Design by David Bengali. Live chamber music performed by Henry Wang (violin), Yuval Herz (violin), Chieh-Fan Yiu (viola), Timotheos Petrin (cello), Max Barros (piano), and Renana Gutman (piano).
The cast is Carter Hudson, Renée Tatum, Chad Johnson, and Kevin Spirtas.