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Van Gogh’s Ear

A pretentious combination of chamber music, reproduction of paintings and readings from diaries and letters that fails to explicate the genius of the artist.

Carter Hudson as Vincent in a scene from “Van Gogh’s Ear” (Photo credit: Shirin Tinati)

Joel Benjamin

Joel Benjamin, Critic

There is more emotional weight within eight measures of Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor than in Eva Wolf’s entire Van Gogh’s Ear at The Pershing Square Signature Center. Same for the French chansons performed during the play by singers portraying characters intimately associated with Vincent. All of the quotations from Vincent Van Gogh’s diaries and letters that make up about half the play’s two hour running time fall flat as delivered by the leaden Carter Hudson who moves about as if sleepwalking.

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.

Carter Hudson as Vincent in a scene from “Van Gogh’s Ear” (Photo credit: Shirin Tinati)

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.

Carter Hudson as Vincent and Renée Tatum as Gabrielle Berlatier in a scene from “Van Gogh’s Ear” (Photo credit: Shirin Tinati)

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

Joel Benjamin
About Joel Benjamin (226 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

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