"Van Gogh's Ear" Is Full of Expressive Impressions

It’s eminently appropriate that in Eve Wolf’s Van Gogh’s Ear Vincent van Gogh—an impressionist always ferociously expressionistic—is presented in a stunning impressionistic setting.

At the center of the Ensemble for the Romantic Century production at the Pershing Square Signature Center—for which Wolf is executive artistic director—is van Gogh (Carter Hudson) reciting directly from the letters he wrote his endlessly supportive artists-representative brother Theo (here played by tenor-baritone Chad Johnson). And Theo stuck by his brother despite Vincent’s only selling one painting during his short life.

Quoting from letters dated Arles in 1888, San Remy in1889 and Auvers-sur-Oise in 1890 (where he spent his final days), Vincent—as he prefers to sign his canvases—begins talking about the emotional pull of colors he piles on his palette at considerable expense to Theo. He goes on to talk about his turbulent, brothel-visiting life, including his increasingly deteriorating mental state. Only vaguely does he refer to severing his right ear lobe, a strong sign of the unceasing battle he wages with himself.

As Hudson performs with growing sensitivity under Donald T. Sanders’s direction, the ear incident is shown rather than described, at least in the excerpts Wolf chooses. Also depicted is Vincent preparing to paint and then painting. One sequence involves him regarding a bunch of sunflowers from myriad angles, which results in the five versions of sunflowers in a vase, now displayed at five museums worldwide, London’s National Gallery among them.

As Wolf designs it, Vincent (who complains no one pronounces his surname prominently) is at the hub of a multi-media presentation. In the program the chamber group is billed above the actors. They are Max Barros and Renana Gutman alternating at the piano, Henry Wang and Yuval Herz on violins, Chieh-Fan Yiu on viola and Timotheos Petrin on cello.

The musicians alternate their uniformly first-rate playing with Vincent’s declarations. Not surprisingly, considering that the period covered is in sync with the artist’s tenure, the repertoire consists of Claude Debussy, Gabriel Fauré, Ernest Chiasson and César Franck. Joining the musicale moments occasionally are tenor Johnson and mezzo-soprano Renée Tatum as Johanna van Gogh-Borger, both in beautifully lucid voice.

Van Gogh’s Ear unfolds on Vanessa James primarily white set—and in her many all-white or predominantly white costumes. There is an area representing Vincent’s room and another representing Theo and Johanna’s Paris home on Rue Lepic.

On a back wall and on tall and slim panels, on Vincent’ easel, on the framed space above Theo’s fireplace and on runways, projection designer David Bengali projects reproductions of the tormented Vincent’s paintings as well as large details from them. The effect is extraordinarily affecting.

The production’s elements add up to a marvelous portrait of a frequent portraitist. Some might say the result is too impressionistic, too superficial to build a more three-dimensional depiction of the acclaimed painter than might be desired. Yes, Nicholas Wright’s 2003 Vincent in Brixton is, for instance, a more complete take, but that isn’t Wolf aim. She and director Sanders are presenting something praiseworthy in its own write: an impressionistic correlative.

There is one anachronism to which the legion of van Gogh idolaters may object. Details of the painter’s ”Wheatfield With Crows” are projected when Vincent is still in Arles. Not so. The 1890 painting is widely believed to have been the last he completed before shooting himself and then dying slowly in the Auvers-sur-Oise room he was renting.

What’s further fascinating and deeply moving about the painting—in which the flight of crows can conjure thoughts of dark spirits soaring into the skies—is that the field is located no more than 100 feet from where Vincent is buried next to Theo.

Visitors to the field and then to the graves can be rendered speechless. Vincent van Gogh partisans will likely respond to Van Gogh’s Ear in the same awed manner.

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