Whether one considers Van Gogh’s Ear a mixed-media presentation, or, in the parlance of millennials, a mash-up, the production directed by Donald T. Sanders for The Ensemble for the Romantic Century abounds in pleasures, from its stately pace, to the extraordinary musicianship that suffuses it, to the revelations about a painter whose work is well-known, but whose personality less so.
Eve Wolf, the group’s founder and executive artistic director, has culled from the letters of Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo for her script. They are delivered as monologues by Carter Hudson, an actor at home in the theater, although he has happily landed his first starring TV role, as a CIA operative on the skids, in FX’s Snowfall.
The Van Gogh that Hudson portrays is in turmoil, but he is never weak. He struggles against mental illness, but he is committed to continue his painting and sacrifice his life for it if necessary. He stands up for himself, writing to Theo, “The strokes come with a continuity and a coherence like notes in a piece of music. So now when anyone says that such and such is done too quickly—you can reply that they are mistaken—it is only that they have looked at it … too quickly.” Even when he is in an asylum, huddled by his bedside clutching himself, one feels his intelligence as well as his pain. But at his best, impoverished yet determined, with his brother’s kindness on his side, there is a lust for life.
Vincent matter-of-factly admits to Theo, in dialogue interspersed with songs and chamber music, that “I am resigned to living like a monk who goes to the brothel once in a fortnight and for the rest is tied up in his work.” He talks about color, nature, and his art, and, throughout Sanders’ delicate production, projections designed by David Bengali show Van Gogh’s paintings in selected spots: inside a frame in Theo’s home; on an easel that Van Gogh uses; and on walkways and vertical panels of the set. The works include still lifes such as Red Poppies and Daisies, Peach Trees in Blossom, Boots with Laces, and, of course, The Starry Night. But there are also ones with figures: Hospital at Saint-Remy, A Couple Walking in the Forest, Old Man in Sorrow, and Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe.
The brothers’ exchanges are frank, loving, and nonjudgmental, and one gets the impression not only of Vincent’s gratitude but of Theo’s undying dependability. “I have to thank you very much for a package of paints, which was accompanied by an excellent woolen waistcoat and chocolates,” Vincent writes to Theo, and the simple way Hudson lovingly touches the paints conveys the depth of their affection.
When Van Gogh writes that “today I began to paint a sunset … a sunset … with a light that for want of a better word I can only call … yellow … pale sulfur yellow … pale golden citron. How lovely yellow is!”, Bengali provides the sunny colors from the artist’s work.
But the musicians add a central contribution, classical music, that is seldom found in theater. There is, first, a chamber ensemble mysteriously garbed as North Africans, in long white robes and takiyas—the large skullcaps of the Maghreb (sets and costumes are by Vanessa James). They play music by French composers: Fauré, Debussy, Chausson and César Franck. To accompany Hudson’s delivery of Van Gogh’s words about looking too quickly at his painting, for instance, the ensemble plays Fauré’s Piano Quartet No. 2 in G minor. There are times when the actors are offstage entirely and one listens just to the music and looks at the art.
Nor is there only instrumental music. The cast includes Chad Johnson, a tenor, as Theo, and mezzo-soprano Renée Tatum as both Theo’s wife and as Gabrielle Berlatier, the young woman whom Van Gogh met at a brothel and to whom he presented his dissevered ear. Both Johnson and Tatum sing art songs by Debussy et al. (with projected surtitles), and the combinations of music, voice, language, live actors and visuals evoke passion, mystery and a persuasive alchemy.
The performers’ interactions are rarer and wordless. There’s a strange connection of Tatum (as Berlatier) and Vincent approaching each other, he with a bloody handkerchief in which he reveals his ear, she with sympathy and a sanguine pity. Theo occasionally hands money to his indigent brother, and he brings new clothing when Vincent is released from the asylum. If one has forgotten the outcome of Van Gogh’s life, the ending comes as a shock, abrupt and sad, but altogether memorable in this impressive theatrical hybrid.
The Ensemble for the Romantic Century’s production of Van Gogh’s Ear plays through Sept. 10 at the Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd St., between Dyer and 10th avenues. Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. For tickets and information, call (212) 279-4200 or visit romanticcentury.org.