Inventing van Gogh

Colonial Players’ Inventing van Gogh requires an investment. Come mentally refreshed with a primer on the Impressionists, and you’ll enjoy it. Come unprepared with a weary mind, and you’ll likely be nodding off mid-way through Act I, as much of the audience did on opening night. The dialogue can be tedious.

Still, I enjoyed this drama, despite several atrocious French accents. After all, what’s not to appreciate about obsession? It’s what drives the great among us to glory even as it drives them mad, and artists it seems, are especially vulnerable. 

Take Dr. Jonas Miller (Richard McGraw), art professor. He has devoted his life to discovering Vincent van Gogh’s “undiscovered” final self-portrait, supposedly painted at the end of his life when van Gogh was under the care of his psychiatrist and patron Dr. Paul Gachet (also played by McGraw.) Miller dies under suspicious circumstances, a tortured man with an unfulfilled dream.

Then there’s van Gogh himself (Stephen Michael Deininger), deranged and now haunting Miller’s delusional protégé, Patrick Stone (James Poole) as he struggles through artists’ block and guilt to forge the lost masterpiece. Not his idea, but they’re not called starving artists for nothing. Throw in the depressed hedonist Paul Gauguin (Pat Reynolds) for good measure, and watch the creative sparks fly. 

The children of geniuses are their unintended victims. Hallie Miller and Marguerite Gachet (both played by Samantha McEwen) are the mentors’ daughters, who become Patrick’s and van Gogh’s muses, both devoted to fathers and lovers who will never be theirs. These women seek affection while Rene Bouchard (Jason Vaughan), an unscrupulous art authenticator, seeks only profit with a plan to create and then “discover” the lost masterpiece.

The plot is clever and the acting terrific. Poole conveys the cockiness of an enfant terrible blessed with charm and cursed with a conscience. McGraw is at his all-time best as the quintessential art professor, passionate and preening. Deininger is van Gogh, from his ruddy beard to his manic philosophizing. Reynolds’ boundless energy and volume bring excitement to Gauguin’s pragmatic voice of reason. And Vaughan fairly slimes across the stage as the dapper and dangerous art con.

McEwen exudes a certain inspirational beauty and coquetry, but she is ill cast for the role of van Gogh’s muse, and distractingly so. For he painted Marguerite Gachet as a pallid blonde, not a woman of color. Integrated casting can work beautifully in some situations, but this is not the place. 

Part of the director’s job is to recreate the artist’s world, and artist Heather Quinn contributes dozens of copies of Van Gogh’s masterpieces to this effect. Given the show’s late production schedule, as a last minute replacement for Radio Golf, Quinn had to work fast.  

In other regards, the play has a thrown-together appearance. The costumes are inconsistent in quality, historical accuracy, fit and flattery. Special effects are minimal, and the set so sparse it contradicts the generally accepted notion of genius at work. In a space representing two art studios there is blackness all around, from the four blank walls to the floor devoid of paint spatters. Only a briefly lit wallboard of pin lights representing van Gogh’s starry night breaks the monotony. The portrait in progress is only visible to half the audience. Such poor staging was a persistent problem, with too much reliance on one sight line that cheats the shorter ends of Colonial’s rectangular stage in the round.

Inventing van Gogh is no masterpiece, but if you pay attention, you’ll find much to appreciate.

Inventing van Gogh by Steven Dietz. Director: Michelle Harmon. Art Reproductions: Heather Quinn. Sound: Wes Bedsworth. Lights: Richard Koster. Costumes: Kaelynn Miller. 
Playing thru Feb.26, at 8pm Th-Sa, 2pm Su and 7:30pm Su Feb.13 at Colonial Players, 108 East St. Annapolis. $20 with discounts; rsvp 410-268-7373.