“I want to get to the point where people say of my work that man feels deeply,” wrote Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo.
For only a few performances, a DC area, favorite painter, Vincent Van Gogh, is brought to caring life by French-born performer Jean-Michel Richaud, in a lovely, insightful homage called Vincent. Richaud does not play Vincent but rather presents himself as Vincent’s brother Theo; an explainer-in-chief for Vincent.
Written, and originally performed and toured by Leonard Nimoy, this 75-minute and intermission-free Vincent chronicles countless ups and downs of Vincent Van Gogh’s all-too-short 37 years of life on Earth. It is based upon Nimoy’s extensive research, in part using Vincent’s letters to his brother Theo. [With our now on-line, digital age, what must have required untold numbers of hours for visits to repositories and permissions to review hundreds of Vincent Van Gogh’s letters can now be explored more leisurely on-line.
The performance begins a few days after the death of Vincent Van Gogh in 1890. At the time, he was far from a household name. He had sold only one painting before his death, after a life-time full of personal struggles. As we learn as retold by Theo, Vincent had been an all too passionate a clergyman only to be dismissed; he had several unfortunate, if not unhealthy relationships with women, and was often thought of as either merely a frequenter of brothels and self-mutilated madman.
Upon his death, Vincent was expected to be forgotten. Even his erstwhile friend and Arles, France housemate, the painter Paul Gaugin was not much charmed. But we know better. Van Gogh has been not been forgotten; far from it. He is a celebrated icon. And one does not need to have been a patron of several recent Van Gogh exhibitions in the DC area. The 2014 National Gallery of Art Celebrating Van Gogh exhibition and the 2013 Repetitions exhibition at the Phillips.
As the performance progresses, actor Richaud opens a small briefcase stuffed with sheets of onion skin paper and a small note book. Layer-upon-layer of Vincent Van Gogh become peeled away through his curated writings. He speaks not in a single cadence, no nuance fashion, but with the manners of a middle-class gentlemen of the late 19th century. Richaud imparts what could have been dry history with a quietly, intense style. He gives the Workhouse audience many an insightful nugget building a multi-layered picture of the inner Vincent.
Over the course of the often affecting Vincent, actor Richaud transforms himself into loving a brother. He becomes Theo the financial keeper of Vincent when he was alive and a legend maker now that Vincent is dead. He recounts how Vincent had an “over developed sense of drama,” with a basic requirement to be “attached to sorrow as he thrived on failure.” Vincent had a “zealot’s intensity” when it came to “unlucky” affairs and attachments to women who did not seem to reciprocate his devotion. He was a creator who wanted to defy the painterly academic canons. For Vincent, painting that “changed reality was not bad or less true” than an unaltered depiction. What was made clear was that Vincent’s own fears and mental state overwhelmed him. He rarely, if ever, exhibited his work to the public.
One particularly haunting story is told: Vincent was “born twice.” How you may ask. Well, Vincent’s parents had a son who died very early in life. His name was Vincent. A year after the untimely death of the first Vincent, the Vincent we now know was born. Painter Vincent saw the grave stone of the earlier Vincent very often as he walked to the church where his father was the pastor. Now that is chilling.
The technical aspects of this production of Vincent are austere. Richaud is attired in a gentleman’s suit, with frock jacket, a vest and a white rounded collar shirt along with comfortable brown shoes. The set includes several wooden chairs, several tables and an artist’s movable eisle and a picture frame, with no canvas. What is used to add emotion and pop are not only a nice use of black-outs and soft spotlights are projections of famous Van Gogh paintings and sketches that range from his many self-portraits to famous paintings that range from sun-splashed wheat-fields, to subdued visions of nature and to the exuberance of Starry Night.
Vincent is a respectful, polished, meditative, sometimes poignant gem. It has a poised performance from Jean-Michel Richaud. Vincent will be especially satisfying for Van Gogh enthusiasts wanting to go deeper into his life through his own curated words.
Running Time: 75 minutes, with no intermission.