Art is a harsh mistress. So is public opinion. And a negative reaction – or being ignored – can do huge psychological damage to an artist who’s “not like all the others.”
Playwright Kimber Lee’s “to the yellow house” – La Jolla Playhouse’s latest offering – explores this problem. It was inspired by a voluminous biography of 19th-century artist Vincent van Gogh that details the (many) failures, hardships and psychological problems the artist had as an iconoclast trying to get viewers (and buyers) to appreciate his most unusual way of portraying the world on canvas.
Here’s a little history: van Gogh never achieved fame during his lifetime, surviving mostly with the help of his brother Theo. He worked briefly as an art dealer. He took up religion and spent time as a Protestant missionary in Belgium before moving to Paris in 1886. Here he tried painting and took art classes, in which the teachers told him how and what to paint: “Draw only what you see.” During this time, he befriended avant-garde artists like Paul Gauguin, who were reacting against the popular Impressionist movement in art.
He and brother Theo exchanged many letters, and this is the source of information we have about the artist. But all this time his psyche suffered. In 1888 he moved south to Arles, where he began to broaden his subjects to the olive trees, wheat fields and sunflowers we all know today. He also drank too much and fell in love with the wrong woman, triggering more depression. He eventually moved back to the Paris area (Auvers-sur-Oise) to be closer to the stability offered by Theo. This is where he would die by his own hand.
The play gives an unsettling portrait of an unstable personality who stubbornly painted what and how he wanted to, and would never know the fame he eventually would achieve. It’s almost as difficult to watch this story as it must have been to live it, because no matter what Vincent does, it doesn’t work out.
The set design by Takeshi Kata gives viewers the idea of Van Gogh’s unstable life by use of black-and-white projections that change and float back and forth behind the action.
Neel Keller directs a diverse and uniformly excellent cast. Six of the actors are students in UCSD’s MFA program.
Paco Tolson, of Manhattan Theatre Club’s “Vietgone” production, must be exhausted each night after playing Vincent, but he is definitely convincing.
Frankie J. Alvarez’s Theo is an excellent if frustrated brother, trying to help van Gogh and have a life of his own.
Vincent spends a lot of time in a local café. Brooke Ishibashi (as waitress and wannabe baker Sophie) and Deidrie Henry (as cafe owner Agostina) add much-needed humor and occasional exasperation.
Alton Alburo, as Henri, Marco Barricelli in three roles, and DeLeon Dallas as Bernard are all very fine as well.
And let’s hear it for the design team: David Israel Reynoso’s costumes, Alberto “Albee” Alvarado’s wigs, Masha Tsimring’s lighting, Palmer Hefferan’s sound design, Nicholas Hussong’s stunning projections and Justin Ellington’s music.
I would like to see the play shortened by at least 30 minutes (it clocks in at two hours, 45 minutes), if only because seeing the same thing happening over and over (failure) gets monotonous.
But “to the yellow house,” named after the house in Arles where Vincent rented four rooms, is certainly a play like no other.
‘to the yellow house’ plays through Dec. 12 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Weiss Theatre.
Shows Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. Shows Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.; Wednesday at 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m; Sunday at 2 and 7 p.m.
Proof of vaccination and masks mandatory.
—Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at email@example.com.