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Van Gogh’s Ear

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - August 17, 2017

Carter Hudson
Photo by Shirin Tinati

How to categorize the Ensemble for the Romantic Century's new production,Van Gogh's Ear, which opened today at the Pershing Square Signature Center? Is it a theatrical work about the tumbled mind of a troubled artist? A chamber music performance? Or perhaps an efficient way for the busy consumer of the arts to take in a concert, a play, and an art exhibit all at the same time?

If nothing else, the production, under the helm of the company's founder, executive artistic director, and playwright Eve Wolf, is a unique exegesis on the creative vision and deteriorating mental health of van Gogh toward the end of his life. The work's theatrical content is drawn from van Gogh's letters to his brother Theo. Its musical content consists of live performances of chamber works and art songs by Debussy, Fauré, and other composers. The continuous and ever-changing display of the artist's paintings comes courtesy of David Bengali's sharply-focused projections that aim for depth and detail.

When we first meet Vincent (Carter Hudson), he is immersed in the life of the starving artist, literally, if his pleas to Theo are to be believed. "These four days I lived mainly on 23 cups of coffee," he writes in one missive in which he urgently asks for funds from the man who, by most accounts, supported the artist financially and emotionally his entire life. The tenor Chad Johnson, who appears as Theo, performs several of the art songs but never speaks in character. Instead, we often see him reacting intently and with great empathy as Mr. Hudson reads aloud Vincent's communications. You do get a feel for the strong fraternal ties between them as Vincent shares his thoughts on his art, his fears, and his frustrations at not being able to fully capture on canvas all that he perceives through his senses.

Meanwhile, there is the music, complete works performed by a group of gifted musicians (piano, two violins, viola, and cello), along with masterful singing by Johnson and mezzo-soprano Renée Tatum. While the music does not seem to be commenting directly on the action, it is perhaps supportive of the hypothesis that van Gogh's neurological makeup included a condition known as synesthesia, in which the senses "cross" one another in the brain so that one might "see" music or "hear" art. This provides the double-meaning of the production's title, with its reference both to van Gogh's "ear" for color and nature, and, of course, to his notorious act of self-mutilation in which he cut off an ear.

Vincent and Theo are not the only two characters being portrayed. In smaller roles, Ms. Tatum, the mezzo-soprano, plays Theo's wife Johanna, as well as the young woman who has the dubious distinction of being the recipient of Vincent's severed ear. Kevin Spirtas appears as well, playing Vincent's physician and an attendant at the mental institution where the artist committed himself for a time.

In the end, it is difficult to pin down just who would make the best audience for Van Gogh's Ear. The connections among the three art forms that are being presented here are not readily apparent, or at least they weren't to this theatergoer. It does help that Carter Hudson as Vincent and Chad Johnson as Theo manage to humanize the brothers beyond what you might expect from a presentation based on excerpts from letters. Their performances help us to see their characters as real people who have an irrevocable bond (though the roots of that bond are never examined or speculated on). We get a strong sense of Vincent's losing battle against depression and madness, and a tenuous ability to function that is tied to his art and to the lifeline that is Theo.

Along with the projections of art works that appear on every available surface, the production is well supported by the harmonious set design and costumes by Vanessa James, and by Beverly Emmons's lighting design. If Van Gogh's Ear intrigues you, you should know that the company has two more productions in the works: a piece based on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein coming in December, and another that focuses on the life of Tchaikovsky, scheduled for next May.

Van Gogh's Ear
Through September 10
The Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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