March 7, 2007

A Tale of Two Brothers

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The Risley Theatre is currently wowing audiences with its production of Leonard Nimoy’s Vincent, a one-person play about the life and times of Vincent Van Gogh. Directed by Ed Schiff, this extraordinary play gives us a glimpse into the tumultuous life of one of the world’s greatest artistic geniuses. As narrated by Van Gogh’s brother Theo, the story of the painter’s eventful life is slowly unfolded through a series of letters exchanged between the two brothers. Vincent stars Brendan Ryan, who adroitly takes on the role of both brothers.

A considerable amount of mystique surrounds the figure of Vincent Van Gogh in popular culture. As the typified tortured genius and starving artiste, Van Gogh is believed to be exceedingly eccentric and often depicted as consumed by madness. However, the play gives us, with great sensitivity, the reality of the man behind these confounded ideas.

The play opens in Paris, France in July of 1890, and we discover that we are at the funeral of Vincent Van Gogh. As the central figure in Van Gogh’s life, Theo Van Gogh, who acted as his art dealer, begins to give us a privileged look into the emotions and central beliefs that inspired his brother.

Often told with a touch of humor and incredible poignancy, Theo leads us through Vincent’s earliest beginnings to his tragic ending. From the onset, we are thrilled by the awe-inspiring ardor in which the artist directed his life. The artist was a lover of God, love, and art to the utmost. Few people know the devotion to which Van Gogh dedicated his life to aiding the poor by living among them, preaching and performing kind acts.

Troubled by a haunting loneliness and numerous failures in his love life, Van Gogh never sold a piece of art until the very last years of his life. He confided in Theo and his brother financially supported him until the very end. Artistically, Van Gogh never allowed himself success and thrived on failure. His “overdeveloped sense of drama,” as Theo states with a hint of irony, impelled the painter to attack his art with an astonishing ferocity.
Vincent touchingly portrays both the progression of the artist’s life and the brilliant evolution of his artistic skills. The simple set of the play is enhanced by the projection of slides in the background. The images develop from pencil drawings to the breathtaking pieces so well known by art aficionados, from The Potato Eaters to Bedroom in Arles to The Starry Night.

One of the most impressive aspects of Vincent is the great talent of its starring actor. Ryan embodies both the calm, dignified persona of Theo and the passionate and fervent Vincent. Ryan’s terrific ability to quickly portray a versatile range of emotions and personalities is remarkable. The disparity between the two brothers is instantly seen through the delight of Ryan’s acting. As the sane and rational gentleman, Theo speaks of his overwhelming love of his brother and also of the difficulties of dealing with his troubles. Conversely, Vincent is loud, passionate and filled to the brim with unceasing energy.

Vincent paints a stunning picture of the life of a singularly unique man whose creative abilities are the likes of which may never be seen again. Van Gogh threw himself wholeheartedly into life and devoted his entire being to the goals he set for himself, whether they were helping the poor, falling in love or creating dazzling masterpieces.
Sadly, the artist struggled with mental problems and other physical illnesses. When Van Gogh moved to Arles in the south of France, many of the townspeople declared him insane and demanded that he be locked within an asylum.

One of the questions that Vincent leaves us with is how to judge a man who deviates from the norm. Both emotionally violent and dramatic, Van Gogh was different by all definitions. His wild eccentricities can be seen as the results of a brilliant intellect.

However, must these extraordinary minds conform to all the demands of society? Though persecuted by the community of Arles for his bizarre behavior, Van Gogh’s peculiarity was a blessing to the art world and future generations of artists. He produced works of exceptional beauty that still overwhelm viewers today and command the highest prices at the premier auction houses.

How could a person judge Vincent Van Gogh? As the play reveals to us, his love for humanity was overpowering. Van Gogh’s greatest wish was “to attain noble things for mankind.” He would be glad to know that art lovers the world over and generations of people would wholeheartedly agree that he fulfilled this goal to the fullest extent.