The publicity graphic for Sacred Fools’ new production is a split screen image of Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh rendered in painterly fashion on panels that represent the style of each artist. Hints of conflict are shown. Gauguin stares out holding a fencing foil in his hand while Vincent stoops over with an open bottle of Absinthe wedged under his arm and spilling out as he gazes bemusedly at the sunflower he apparently has just painted on Gauguin’s white shirt. It is captivating, irresistible. Why resist? The show fulfills the promise of the graphic beyond whatever one might imagine.
The world premiere production of The Art Couple boasts an ingenious script by playwright Brendan Hunt. Yes, the play is about the famous relationship between the two artists who lived together for a time in the south of France, which was detailed in spectacular fashion in the film, Lust for Life that featured Kirk Douglas as van Gogh and Anthony Quinn as Gauguin, but that scenario is but an element of an über-story. Any notion that we are dealing with history flies out the window when, after the houselights dim, projections of printed letters appear on the walls above the stage accompanied by the clacking sound of a typewriter—Paris-1888. Okay, let’s go.
The lights come up on a card game in the apartment of pointillist painter, Georges Seurat (Joel Scher). Seurat’s famous painting, “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” leans against the wall. He is playing poker with Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (Laura Harrison), Auguste Rodin (Kristyn Evelyn), and Gauguin (Bryan Bellomo). It is a scene of high hilarity of Marx Brothers caliber verging on the slapstick. The comedic stakes are jacked up when van Gogh appears tall and dour, with his famous ginger beard and hair. The role of Vincent is a brilliantly rendered in a go-for-broke, tour de force performance by the playwright, Brendan Hunt. As Gauguin, Mr. Bellomo is suave. He gets on with women and seems lazy in his craft. He is the perfect opposite of van Gogh, a notorious oddball, an obsessive, singularly focused, quasi-religious man devoid of manners. Vincent is intense, focusing on creating an artists colony in the town of Arles. The only one who will agree to join him is Gauguin, and then only because he is down to has last sou.
Now, here is the promised über-story. With the sound of the clacking typewriter and printing on the walls, we are now in a jazz club in the Village circa 1963. It’s closing time and Neil Simon (Clayton Farris) has been writing in a notebook for hours. Steve the Busboy (Ryan Patrick Welsh) is cleaning up. He is friendly, young, tall, handsome, and speaks with a slight drawl. He strikes up a conversation with the playwright, who is in writer’s block hell as he tries to come up with a script for a play he has committed to write. What play? Let’s just say that the two stories overlap and parallel each other, shifting back and forth in time. The Art Couple is the richest situation comedy that I have ever seen on stage. It keeps the audience in stitches for a two full acts.
The ensemble of protean actors, Marie-Francoise Theodore, and the aforementioned Joel Scher, Laura Harrison, and Kristyn Evelyn, take on multiple roles performing with gusto and complete abandon. Ms. Theodore plays a sassy, buxom not-to-be-messed with prostitute, as well as the demure, but sharp-tongued Mme. Ginoux, who sat for portraits by both artists. Ms. Harrison and Ms. Evelyn are an absolute hoot as a pair of circus acrobats brought home as dates by Gauguin. They are totally, delightfully uninhibited as they giggle, simper, and flaunt their femininity. And Mr. Sher, arch and petulant as Seurat, becomes giddy as Vincent’s brother, Theo, and Clouseau-like as Inspector Murée.
Director Lauren Van Kurin keeps the pace fast and furious, while allowing for some necessary breathers. DeAnne Millais’s set design is configured in tennis-court fashion with the audience on two sides facing each other. The set walls have old-timey wainscoting that works well in either the 19th or 20th century. Fresh off his Ovation Award win for the Soul City production, Plasticity, the projection design by Corwin Evans, with its countless images of art appearing on opposing walls, is nothing short of brilliant. The lighting design by Andrew Schmedake (who also just won an Ovation Award for 33 Variations at the Actors Co-op) fits hand-in-glove with the projections. Ben Rock’s sound design is terrific with a playlist of music both modern and impressionist. Costumes by Linda Muggeridge enhance both period and action. I appreciated the detailed properties design by Ashley Crow. And fight choreography by Trampas Thompson has a struggle between the principal actors the like of which I have never seen. The stage is exceedingly well managed by Rachel Manheimer.
Produced by Bruno Oliver, Sacred Fools Theatre Company’s The Art Couple is a must see, and, with a modest ticket price that has a guarantee that no patron will pay more than $15, what excuse is there for not seeing this extraordinary production? Parking? Easy. I have never been further away from the theatre than two and a half blocks.
I have just been notified that The Art Couple has been extended! Good news for you that haven’t seen it. Why are you waiting?
Sacred Fools say: “Originally scheduled to close on March 17, three more weekends have been added. The additional dates are March 18, 23, 24, 25, 30 and 31, plus April 1, 6 and 7. The three Friday and Saturday performances are at 8pm and the two Sundays are at 7pm. Seating in the Broadwater Black Box is limited and houses sell out quickly, so we encourage making early reservations.”