Vincent van Gogh created over 2,100 pieces of art, including around 860 oil paintings in just over a decade. Most of them in the last two years of his life in France. Tortured by mental illness and poverty, his suicide at 37 was no surprise. Van Gogh suffered from psychotic episodes and delusions while neglecting his physical health and drinking heavily. He severed part of his own left ear with a razor in a rage. Opening tonight at the Pershing Square Signature Center is a visual, beautiful, and ethereal production called Van Gogh’s Ear, by Eve Wolf, presented by Ensemble for the Romantic Century.
Thanks to the set design by Vanessa James and the marvelous projections by David Bengali, you see van Gogh’s work in a way you have never seen it before. There is an empty canvas – a blank portrait – on the other side, an unoccupied wall with tall deserted panels and geometric pathways that shift and shape into details and close-ups of van Gogh’s genius. Color explodes as brush strokes are made crystal clear and these spaces are filled. Beverly Emmons lighting shades these work into a dreamscape. Add to this chamber pieces and opera by van Gogh’s contemporaries. A haunting viola, played by triple prize winner Chieh-Fan Yiu, brought to life Claude Debussy’s “Beau Soir.” Joining Mr. Yiu were Henry Wang and Yuval Herz, both on violin, and Timotheos Petrinon on cello for “String Quartet in G minor”. Gabriel Faure’s melodies came alive with Renana Gutman on piano, as did Ernest Chausson and César Franck with Max Barros interchanging on the keys. Playing Theo, Van Gogh’s brother, was opera singer Chad Johnson, who tours with Chris Botti. Mezzo-soprano Renée Tatum appears as Gabrielle Berlatier, the young woman in Provence who received van Gogh’s ear and Theo’s wife, Johanna. Her tones were simply exquisite.
Rounding out this sensory experience, was what seemed more like a running monologue of van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo. Carter Hudson plays van Gogh, and though he has terrific facial expressions and looks like van Gogh, his vocals are off putting. This piece needs a Jeremy Irons or a Patrick Stewart. Ms. Wolf’s script follows the daily existence of a man who never sold a painting in his lifetime; who dealt with depression and demons of every kind. This becomes monotonous if not given a certain resonance. Mr. Hudson was recently seen off Broadway in The Effect and is on the TV Series “Snowfall”. Kevin Spirtas was given next to nothing but managed to make a stance. And Donald T. Sanders kept the piece moving.
Van Gogh’s Ear makes you appreciate art, not being recognized despite being a genius, as well as the pain of mental illness. I left the theatre wanting to know more and feeling life was but a starry night.
Van Gogh’s Ear: Ensemble for the Romantic Century at Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd St. Until Sept. 10th