World premiere in Williamsburg of Charles L. Mee's trilogy, staged by Brave New World Repertory Theatre
By Lore Croghan
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Starry, starry night.
If that Don McLean lyric makes you think of Vincent Van Gogh, you're on the right track.
The intense fellow you encounter in this Williamsburg art space, talking about how he paints “almost without stopping from morning till night, day after day,” is the renowned Van Gogh.
Brave New World Repertory Theatre brings him and two other art-world superstars, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, back to life in mesmerizing fashion in the world premiere of “The Immortals.”
The theatre troupe is staging this trio of one-act plays written by Obie Award-winner Charles L. Mee in Glasshouse Art Life Lab, a Union Avenue venue that specializes in performance art. Glasshouse even allows guests to book overnight stays.
Mee based the scripts of the three plays on remarks and writings by the artists and their contemporaries, including letters Van Gogh and his devoted brother Theo wrote to each other.
“The Immortals” puts audience members right inside each superstar's art studio — or in Van Gogh's case, in the Saint-Rémy-de-Provence asylum where he lived after slicing off part of his left ear.
During Van Gogh's stay in Saint-Rémy, he created an astonishing 142 paintings in a single year.
Spending time in such close quarters with the three iconic artists is a moving experience for the audience.
What adds to the intimacy in “Matisse's Self Portrait,” which is staged in the Glasshouse's garden, is that it's performed while there's still daylight. The actors can see the audience members' facial expressions.
Site-specific productions are a specialty of Brooklyn theatre troupe Brave New World Rep, which has been around for more than a decade.
The group gained major recognition in 2005 when 2,000-plus people attended “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which it staged on porches and sidewalks outside Victorian houses in Ditmas Park.
Claire Beckman, Brave New World Rep's producing artistic director and co-founder, is directing “The Immortals” play called “Picasso's Masterpiece.”
'An artist can fail many times'
On Thursday, May 12, when the Brooklyn Eagle attended “The Immortals,” the first play performed was “Matisse's Self Portrait.” It's a meditation on fame and the quest for a meaningful existence.
Matisse, in a touching portrayal by actor Dan Sturges, tells us right at the outset how much he loves his line of work.
“I don't know if anyone can plan to have a life like this. It just happens when you're not thinking,” he confides. “And then you see if you can just be resourceful enough not to reduce it to rubble.”
Despondent artists and a chorus flit in and out, and make trenchant observations.
“An artist can fail many times, but he isn't a failure until he gives up,” one despondent artist tells another.
Starry, starry night
In the second play, “Van Gogh's Sunflowers,” actor Oliver Wadsworth does a terrific job as fragile, passionate Vincent Van Gogh. Goodness and fraternal love radiate from actor Craig A. Grant, who plays Theo Van Gogh.
This play is staged in a small, cave-like room in the Glasshouse's basement that suitably evokes the confining walls of an asylum.
A flat-screen computer serves as an asylum window. It displays shifting images of the glorious landscape Vincent describes in his letters to Theo, picturesque terrain that provides subject matter for his paintings.
Vincent's candor about his mental illness is heart-wringing.
“I'm trying to get better now like someone who, having wanted to commit suicide, finding the water too cold, tries to catch hold of the bank again,” he says.
A painting called 'The Brothel'
The third play, “Picasso's Masterpiece,” is staged in a ground-floor room of the Glasshouse. The charismatic Picasso is ably played by actor Juan Carlos Pineda.
In the artist's Montmartre studio, we meet the irrepressible Fernande Olivier (played by a luminous Alice Kors), his 23-year-old muse.
She tells us, among other things, that it's hot as hell at the studio and Picasso and his buddies often strip naked. They tie scarves around their waists if visitors show up.
There's a party with lots of famous guests. One of them, Russian dancer Nijinsky, dishes that his lover Diaghilev, the founder of Ballet Russes, dyes his gray hair black to avoid looking old. And the hair dye gets all over Diaghilev's pillowcases.
The work that's on Picasso's easel during the play is now widely considered to be one of the most important paintings of the 20th Century.
“I call it 'The Brothel,'” Picasso says.
Some of his friends want him to change the title to “Les Demoiselles D'Avignon.” Guess who won that argument?
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Performances of “The Immortals” are free to the public, but reservations are required.
Go to bravenewworldrep.org for tickets.
“Matisse's Self Portrait” and “Van Gogh's Sunflowers” will be the combined offering on May 21 and on May 22, too. The start time on both nights is 7 p.m.
“Picasso's Masterpiece” and “Van Gogh's Sunflowers” will be combined on May 25 as well as on May 26. The start time on those nights is 8 p.m.