Review: A Glimpse Behind the Canvas in ‘Van Gogh’s Ear’
By Megan Wrappe, Contributing Writer, August 18, 2017
In the world of art, you often hear about Van Gogh’s style of painting described as revolutionary when compared to his Impressionist counterparts. And at the time it was, and still is. The sad part is the artist never sold a painting during his lifetime; his work only found an audience after he had taken his own life at just 37 years old.
Van Gogh’s Ear is based upon actual letters that Van Gogh (Carter Hudson) sent to his brother, Theo (Chad Johnson). With the entire book of the play being comprised of Van Gogh reciting his letters, we are able to see the genius behind the art, as well as his many personal struggles. Hudson portrays the title character wonderfully, with the production under the strong direction of Donald T. Sanders.
In one scene we hear Van Gogh telling Theo how the darkness has come back and the fits have begun again. In the following scene, we see Van Gogh with his famously bandaged ear in a mental hospital, overseen by the menacing Dr. Peyron (Kevin Spirtas), saying he doesn’t even have the strength to paint anymore. This scene humanizes Van Gogh in such a powerful way that the audience is able to view and understand Van Gogh not just as an artist, but as a human being whose struggles with doubt and depression are all the more relatable.
The other integral element of this production is the use of music connecting Van Gogh’s story. This is achieved by having a group of musicians onstage throughout the show playing pieces of chamber music and mélodie by Van Gogh’s musical impressionistic contemporaries, Debussy, Faure and Chausson, between the monologues. In addition to playing the role of Theo, Chad Johnson also shows off his beautiful tenor voice in a number of these selections. His interpretation evoked a palpably emotional atmosphere, bringing some audience members to tears. Also lending her beautiful soprano voice to the production is Renée Tatum, contributing artistry of the highest order.
The overall production elements were also key to the success of the performance. Using digital projection to its advantage, Van Gogh’s paintings were projected onto different parts of the stage, ranging from his well-known masterpieces, to the less familiar. These images presented in chronological order allowed the audience to experience Van Gogh’s artistic growth as it related to the events in his life. For example, during Van Gogh’s stay at the hospital, pictures of his Saint-Paul Asylum series were shown, as were his self-portraits with his bandaged ear. Hudson, while standing onstage wearing a hat and coat, presented a living replica of Van Gogh’s famous portrait. This synthesis of creativity played well on stage, and allowed the audience to view and appreciate works of the artist often passed over.
Van Gogh’s Ear provides the audience with more understanding of the man who painted the iconic works “Starry Starry Night,” “Sunflowers,” and “Room at Arles.” We are also left with the desire to have been able to tell him that he was not alone in his mental health struggles, and what an amazing artist he was.
Van Gogh’s Ear presented by Ensemble for the Romantic Century at Pershing Square Signature Center through September 10, 2017. Written by Eve Wolf. Directed by Donald T. Sanders; set and costume design by Vanessa James; lighting design by Beverly Emmons; projection design by David Bengali; production coordinator: Matthew McVey-Lee; production stage manager: Timothy R. Semon. Cast: Carter Hudson, Chad Johnson, Renée Tatum, Kevin Spirtas; musicians: Henry Wang, Yuval Herz, Chieh-Fan Yiu, Timotheos Petrin, Max Barros, and Renana Gutman.
Cover: Carter Hudson (as Vincent Van Gogh) in ‘Van Gogh’s Ear;’ photo: Shirin Tinati.