Tuesday, Apr 24, 2018
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Strong characters carry dark, complex drama at the Rep

Madness, obsession, and imagination are central themes of Inventing Van Gogh, in which the lines between them are often blurred.

The Toledo Repertoire Theatre is presenting Steven Dietz's drama through May 1, and it's an engrossing character-driven tale.

Patrick Stone is a talented young artist who hasn't been able to paint since his mentor, Jonas Miller, died three years earlier. Miller, an expert on the painter Vincent van Gogh, was obsessed with the artist's lost, last self-portrait, which he worked on hours before his suicide in 1890.

Most Van Gogh scholars believe that final self-portrait is a myth, but Miller was certain it was real, and his determination to find it cost him his family and ultimately his life.

Enter Rene Bouchard, an art authenticator whose reputation is peerless. He has a proposition for Stone: Create that last portrait. Bouchard will authenticate it and get rich when he sells it, and in return he will open doors to wealthy patrons looking for a new artist to support.

Stone is aghast at the thought of forgery … and at the implication that Bouchard has done this before.

Bouchard waves away the objections. People are fascinated not in the painting itself but by its history, he tells Stone, coercing him with a vague threat that the investigation into Stone's role in Miller's death could be reopened.

As Stone ponders the possibilities of the commission, Van Gogh wanders into his studio. Stone believes he's hallucinating. Other characters show up: Dr. Gachet, who was given custody of Van Gogh after the painter was released from an insane asylum: Gachet's daughter, Marguerite, who is in love with Van Gogh; the artist Paul Gaugin, who worked with Van Gogh in his studio in Provence, France; Professor Miller, who talks about Gaugin as if they were close friends, and Hallie, Miller's daughter and Stone's lover, who feels abandoned by the two men she loved most.

The play takes place in two parallel universes: Stone's modern-day studio and 19th century France, where Van Gogh is nearing the end of his life. Sometimes the universes merge, as when Stone discusses art with Van Gogh.

At first it's disconcerting to see Van Gogh in Stone's life, but soon we are sucked into their relationship. Do we become part of Stone's madness? Or is it madness? Who among us hasn't had mental conversations with someone long dead or far away: a parent, a teacher, a friend? Is what we're seeing simply Stone's imagination at work, revved into turbospeed by his mentor's obsession and death?

In Inventing Van Gogh, Dietz has crafted a tale in which time and place have little meaning. A few words, a gesture, a bit of conversation are enough to let us know if it's now or then or neither: a flashback to Van Gogh's life, Stone's memories of his relationship with Hallie, his imaginings of how Van Gogh would have tutored him. When Miller comes wandering onto the stage to talk about Van Gogh, we presume that Stone is remembering Miller's lectures or conversations

Helping smooth this journey into several realities is the talent of the Rep's cast, led by Zac Gilley as Van Gogh and James McFarlane as Stone. Gilley's makeup on costume nail the look of the artist, and his demeanor seems right. Was Van Gogh this passionate? I don't know; I'm not an art scholar. But thanks to Gilley's portrayal, I now believe he was.

Stone is an intriguing character, an egotist who is losing confidence in himself, but McFarlane manages to make him sympathetic and at times likable, especially as he tries to negotiate the ethical quagmire in which he finds himself.

Rep veteran Jeffrey Albright portrays Professor Miller as an ivory-tower academic, a bit dry, a bit pretentious, a man who saves his passions for his work, not people. His descent into a madness that mimics Van Gogh's is as surprising as it is intense.

Fred Robinson plays Dr. Gachet as a buffoon whose ineptitude may have cost Gaugin his life, and Terry Biel is Gaugin, whose pragmatism is a startling counterpoint to Van Gogh's passion.

Marissa Rex as Hallie and Christina Billew as Marguerite have smaller but pivotal roles as women who idolize fathers who neglect them and lovers who leave them.

Inventing Van Gogh can get talky, but director Barbara Barkan sets a steady pace and the action never seems to drag.

One of the complaints I've heard about local theater is that it's filled with comedies and musicals. My reply? They're what fills the house. Inventing Van Gogh is a case in point. The Rep was only half full Saturday night, the second day of its run. This play is intriguing, accessible, and entertaining, and it's well worth the support.

"Inventing Van Gogh" is scheduled at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, with additional evening performances on April 28-30. A matinee is at 2:30 p.m. May 1. Tickets are $18 for adults, $16 for seniors, $10 for students 13 and older, and $5 for children 12 and younger. Information: 419-243-9277.

Contact Nanciann Cherry at ncherry@theblade.com or 419-724-6130.

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