Yellow Heat: Vincent van Gogh in Arles

Next Theatre Company

By Carol Burbank

Before I describe the lush, intellectually satisfying experience of Next Theatre’s Yellow Heat: Vincent van Gogh in Arles, I have a confession to make. I love well-made plays about the madness of artists.

I love their historical and theatrical excesses, the way they create myths even as they debunk legends. I love the fantastical melodrama unleashed by the alchemy of poverty and creativity, the struggle that pits artists against themselves and the culture that created them. And when the artist inevitably goes down in a blaze of self-destructive glory, and the voice-over repeats words from the artist’s diary or letters, I listen like a devotee, with renewed faith that the art left behind makes the struggle worthwhile. Other critics can have their Andrew Lloyd Webber lyrical pyrotechnics, their David Mamet gritty psychodramas. If theater must be squeezed into a formula, give me a play like Yellow Heat.

Directed by Next Theatre’s managing director, Peter Rybolt, Yellow Heat depicts the seven-month period in 1888 when the painter was at the height of his ambition and his desperation, producing paintings at the rate of one a day. Local playwright Allan Bates opens his well-crafted, well-researched work with Joseph (Ralph Flores), the postmaster of the town and the artist’s friend and moral support, as the narrator. He tells the story of van Gogh’s attempt to found a studio with Paul Gauguin, a device that frames the artists’ relationship with the provincial concerns of Arles. From the first scene Rybolt pushes his cast at a frenzied pace, fueled by van Gogh’s peripatetic anxiety and compulsive painting. Bruce Orendorf as van Gogh is a cross between hyperactive child and religious visionary, constantly overstimulated by light and color and obsessed with easing the lives of coal miners, peasants who live without beauty or hope of light’s comfort.

Demonstrating the more grounded source of van Gogh’s genius are his letters, excerpted in a meditative voice-over and often combined with projected slides of his work. But the desperate feeling of the play doesn’t ease until the relationship between van Gogh and Gauguin–a womanizer with a brutal temper and an aesthetic opposed to van Gogh’s–explodes. Their differences, complicated by van Gogh’s addiction to absinthe, both bring about and destroy the men’s friendship, which dissolves when their debates about the nature of inspiration become confrontations and, finally, violent assaults. Yasen Peyankov’s Gauguin is impossible to like: arrogant and manipulative, he makes van Gogh’s frenzy worse until neither man can live with himself, much less the other. There is peace only after Gauguin leaves, and van Gogh recovers from the rage in which he cut off his own ear. The play ends with the artist painting, content in an expansive moment of quiet that gives a sense of the sanity of art.

“Painting is a faith,” wrote van Gogh, describing its power as an intimacy “like the moment when a man enters a woman.” The excess of emotion concentrated in a painting, or a play about a painter, is a luxurious intellectual eroticism. The visual stimulation of projected paintings on a stark set, of a hat decked with candles to allow the painter to see his canvas at night, of dark red wine or moon green absinthe–these are the pleasures of this mad artist’s stage biography. Even when the scenes are too long and philosophy stalls a conversation, our patience is rewarded with a new insight into a bowl of oranges or the luxury of watching a woman transform into a painting while she models.

Yellow Heat did not disappoint me, offering almost all the pleasures and dangers of the mad-artist genre. We were even treated to representatives of the local brutish but somehow noble populace, bighearted, jealous, and naive: a grieving but coarse whore (Amy Landecker) and a peasant landlady (played with graceful precision by Patti Hannon). But this biography carefully stopped short of asserting madness and poverty as necessary conditions for genius, an ideology that has romanticized centuries of suffering. (A twisted version of this idea has even been used to justify funding cutbacks at the NEA.)

The ideal of the mad artist is a two-sided coin. It’s deadly to live by: generally, mad artists are not very productive. Van Gogh killed himself soon after the peaceful last scene of Bates’s drama. But flip the coin and you find the myth behind Yellow Heat, defining art as a force simultaneously inside and outside society, individual and yet larger than the artist. Our romantic image of the antisocial artist as the force that defines and creates culture seduces us with its predictability and its strange hopefulness. It satisfies our need to believe in the ecstasy of creation. And in a solidly crafted play like Yellow Heat, it reminds us to risk our selves for our vision and embrace the eccentricities that make us whole.

In my review of Junk Food (February 9), I misidentified the performer in “Circus Peanut Song” and “The Woman Who Forgot How to Eat”: it was Tucker Brown.