By John Lyle Belden
Welcome to the world of Vincent Van Gogh!
Our entry is via the path of “Exhausted Paint” by Justin Maxwell, a playwright and Associate Professor at the University of New Orleans (another world of French style and cool cafes), presented by MFA student Drew Stroud with tour producer and wife Carly Stroud, directed by Baton Rouge-based R’Myni Watson. The Strouds have brought this one-man performance to the IndyFringe Indy Eleven stage for a single weekend before taking it to Illinois in April.
The subtitle, “The Death of Van Gogh,” is a bit misleading. The troubled genius painter was presumably alone when shot in the chest by a small-caliber revolver. It wasn’t the bullet that killed him, but the ensuing infection, 30 hours later on July 29, 1890. This isn’t covered in-depth in the play, though we eventually see it coming. (Theories have abounded in the years since, from an apparent suicide attempt to accident and even murder, but look elsewhere to expound on that.)
However, we do meet him in his final years, 1888 in Arles, France, through the birth of the namesake nephew he would never meet, in January 1890, to the day he wanders off with the gun. Correction: Time travel isn’t real (sorry, Doctor Who fans) so we’re meeting him in 2023 on a cluttered stage with painting supplies, an easel, random objects and some sort of rotating drum. And here is Vincent, who admits he is more a pop culture object now, embodied for the moment by an actor who speaks bad French (“His Dutch is even worse,” Van Gogh quips) yet through this theatre graduate student with hair dyed the copper sheen of one of the famous self-portraits, he remarks on that two-year period, based on the numerous letters he wrote to his brother – the man who financially supported him, as only one of his multitude of paintings sold in his lifetime.
Since the artist is being channeled through an improv performer, and befitting a history of various unspecified mental disorders (he leaves that up to others to define, but admits syphilis as a factor isn’t out of the question), Vincent frequently spins the drum, which has numerous parchment words stuck to it. He then pulls one, and lets the prompt guide his next brief monologue, memory, action, or audience encounter. He drinks wine, he drinks turpentine (not recommended), he bandages his head (you probably know why), he offers a bite of his potato. He labors at the canvas in bold strokes, then shows you his whole world in an envelope. He is amused, he is troubled, he is in touch with God, he is lonely, he pursues the light, he finds color in darkness. Nature – the crow, the tree root, the very atmosphere – mocks him. Another hasty drink, and the drum spins again. Stroud noted after the show this structure is indeed random, helping make no two performances the same.
Despite attempting only one French phrase, our 21st-century man does an excellent job embodying the master, complete with tics of mental distraction that don’t sink to caricature, in a modern colloquial style – complete with a few F-bombs – that would befit an Impressionist genius who just appeared, a la “Bill and Ted,” in our lecture hall. Thus I highly recommend this to anyone, teenage an up, interested at all in the man, his life and work. Through this appropriately unconventional means, we gain surprising insight into his story, and what makes his paintings – which you could have picked up back in the day for a handful of francs – worth multiple millions of dollars today. (This irony is not lost on the spirit of Vincent, either!)
If you happen to catch this review as I post it, you have a couple more opportunities to see “Exhausted Paint” in Indianapolis, today and Sunday (March 25-26) at the IndyFringe building, 719 E. St. Clair St. Get tickets at indyfringe.org. Upcoming performances are in Jacksonville, Ill., April 13; Springfield, April 14-16; and Decatur, April 18. Get info at ExhaustedPaint.com.