Thursday, February 19, 2004

Vincent in Brixton (Cleveland Play House)

‘VINCENT IN BRIXTON’ is a fine production at CPH

The legend of Vincent van Gogh lives on through his paintings, those swirling, thickly pigmented canvases filled with sunflowers, soulful faces and starry night skies. Rumors live on of his life, the famous cutting off of his own ear, his co-dependent relationship with his brother, his monumental fits of depression, and his penniless existence.

The painter has been depicted as a tortured genius, but in ‘VINCENT IN BRIXTON, Nicholas Wright’s award winning play now on stage at the Cleveland Play House, van Gogh takes on the image of a raw, naive, tactless and even comical character.

Van Gogh had three uncles who were art dealers. In 1873, at age 20, in order to train him for entrance into the family business, he was moved from his native Holland to work in the London office of an international art-dealing firm. It is at this point that author Wright starts his play. The script traces the transforming effects of love, sex and youthful adventure on van Gogh's still-unformed talent.

Vincent rented a room in the house of a widow named Ursula Loyer and her adult daughter Eugenie. Wright speculates that van Gogh fell in love with both women, but it was his affair with Mrs. Loyer that was a life-altering experience in a journey that ultimately ended with mental breakdown, death and immortality.

The “facts” of this story were taken from letters written by van Gogh to various family members. Wright has filled in the gaps where real information does not exist, thus creating a biodrama, not a histodrama.

The play, which won the Olivier Award for its London production, has been called "a fascinating, funny and sometimes deeply moving Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," “Wright's best play," “an enthralling play,” and “fascinating, funny and moving.”

The CPH’s production, under the expert direction of Seth Gordon, is generally on target. As he did with last year’s ‘PROOF,’ Gordon again proves himself to be the most talented of CPH directors. He is the only director so far who has found a way to use the poorly designed Baxter Stage with any positive effect. It can only be hoped that with the reorganization of the theatre Gordon is not only encouraged to remain, but is given more responsibilities.,

Beth Dixon gives a fine performance as Ursula, van Gogh’s mature lover. Simon Kendall is perfect as Vincent. His frail body and delicate face give a vivid picture of the troubled van Gogh as a youth. His acting nuances, foretell the torture that the man will experience. Virginia Donohoe and Patrick Jones are excellent as the daughter and her lover/husband. Only Emily Frazier Klingensmith is weak in her performance. Complete with overdone accent, hers is not a believable portrayal of Vincent’s sister.

Kent Dorsey’s set is excellent, but one must wonder about the modern plumbing and running water in a London house in 1873.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘VINCENT IN BRIXTON’ is excellent. It is the bringing together of a well-honed script and fine production values. This is what the Cleveland Play House should be doing on a regular basis.