Awkwardly constructed by Wolf as a (brilliantly played) chamber music concert/dramatization of van Gogh’s thoughts/a richly projected art exhibition the play barely registers as a play, but as some sort of uneasy hybrid interrupted by Hudson spouting van Gogh’s lines who, despite the straw hat and paint-splattered duds, barely registering as an artist.
The centerpiece of Van Gogh’s Ear is the very white set by Vanessa James (who also designed the period costumes for the actor/singers and the simple outfits for the musicians). The stage is divided into three sections. Stage right is the middle class home of Theo van Gogh and his wife Johanna, complete with hearth; the middle is an open area for the musicians; and the stage right depicts the famous bedroom that appeared in several of Vincent’s painting.
The whiteness allows David Bengali’s projections of paintings to shine in brilliant, brushstroke by brushstroke elaborateness and for Beverly Emmons’ rich lighting to help the audience forget that same whiteness of the surroundings.
Projected titles indicate place and year—beginning with Arles, 1888 and progressing until van Gogh’s suicide—which we hear as an offstage gunshot—in July of 1890. The audience is treated to Vincent’s thoughts on his painting technique, his poverty, his mental health, his fellow artists, stars, sunflowers, all interrupted by chamber music by Debussy, Fauré, Chausson and Franck played—in various combinations—by Henry Wang (violin), Yuval Herz (violin), Chich-Fan Yiu (viola), Timotheos Petrin (cello), Max Barros (piano) and Renana Gutman (piano).
As Theo, Chad Johnson never speaks, but mimes reading Vincent’s letters and sings several French songs that are more mood setters than comments on Vincent’s life. Similarly, Renée Tatum in the double role of Gabrielle Berlatier (the receiver of Vincent’s ear) and Vincent’s sister-in-law Johanna also mimes and sings. Both are brilliant singer/actors and wear their costumes with grace.
Kevin Spirtas, a fine singer/actor, is wasted in the tiny roles of a hospital attendant and the doctor who delivered optimistic prognoses to Theo van Gogh.
Donald T. Sanders, the director, can’t make the disparate parts gel into an illuminating whole. He also might have quickened the pace and cut out some of the chamber music.
Van Gogh’s Ear (through September 10, 2017)
The Ensemble for the Romantic Century
The Irene Diamond Stage, The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.TicketsCentral.com
Running time: two hours including one intermission