What is it about the tragedy of Vincent van Gogh that still fascinates, more than a century later? A nagging guilt over his inability to sell more than one painting during his lifetime, even though he now commands millions of dollars? The image of him taking his own life at age 37 in the French fields that inspired some of his greatest works? Or the suspicion that he wouldn't have suffered so much if only people knew about Prozac then?
For whatever reasons, van Gogh has attained a mystique that continually provokes new interpretations of his life story. Perhaps only Jesus Christ and Elvis Presley have been deconstructed more often by authors and filmmakers this century.
In a Different Light uses van Gogh's letters as its script. Before a backdrop resembling a van Gogh sketch, Ger Campbell gave a powerful performance as the tormented Dutch artist. The painter's poignant thoughts on love and despair easily merit a longer play, but writer Robert Fannin was remarkably comprehensive in condensing l,670 pages of letters into a one-hour monologue.
In contrast to biographies that depict van Gogh as argumentative and demanding, In a Different Light is entirely sympathetic. Here is a van Gogh who braves nasty weather to visit the object of his unrequited love in another city, languishing in a cheap inn for days while she refuses to come out of hiding until he leaves. Here too is a man who in the depths of despondency is ostracized by neighbors who peek into his windows to gawk and giggle.
The play never got maudlin, however. Campbell forcefully conveyed van Gogh's excitement, anger and defeatism without resorting to heavy-handed tear-jerking. He looked exactly like the artist and deftly used body language to underscore a splendid emotional performance. Sitting in a chair, for example, Campbell looked paralyzed--his stiff hands physicalized the words about how van Gogh's passion was crippled by poverty and loneliness. When van Gogh is institutionalized, Campbell tensed his body as if it bore a straitjacket.
The lighting also reflected van Gogh's mood swings and created a shadow that gave a physical presence to the psychological demons he could never shake off. The outstanding technical aspects of this production, along with keen staging, permitted the most dramatic moments of In a Different Light to work with minimal props. Van Gogh' s famous ear-cutting involved no blood or bandage but evoked pain and distress. And instead of a gun, the artist' s suicide was enacted with a brilliant sound effect.
(Set, Damon Hartley; costumes, Pieter Roos; lighting, G. Allyn Dunbar; sound, Brian Hallas.)
Copyright 1996 Adrienne Onofri
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