My Own Brother, Vincent
Presented by People’s Branch Theatre
Through Oct. 21
Zeitgeist Art Gallery, 1819 21st Ave. S.
For information, call 254-0008
People’s Branch Theatre is the latest addition to Nashville’s small, close-knit community of Actors Equity-affiliated theater companies. Founder and artistic director Brian Niece is a native Nashvillian and a 1999 graduate of Trevecca University. Besides his performances with the Nashville Shakespeare Festivalmost recently as Orlando in As You Like ItNiece has also made appearances with Mockingbird Public Theatre and Nashville Children’s Theatre.
My Own Brother, Vincent, People’s Branch’s debut production, opened Oct. 6. It is a modest, technically uncomplicated affair, which seems like a good idea for a fledgling theatrical endeavor. Happily, it is also an affair rich in artistic meaning, as true to the goals of fine theater as any more elaborately staged production might be.
Niece is the author and star of this one-man piece, which is based upon the some 600 letters written from artist Vincent van Gogh to his beloved brother and patron, Theo. The brothers van Gogh and their unique relationship are, of course, legend in the history of art, as familiar to us as Vincent’s desperately wrought artworks. And while the painter’s struggles have been well documentedmost popularly in the 1956 film Lust for Life, starring Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinnthere is a poignancy and richness to the story that bear retelling.
The appropriate setting for this production is Zeitgeist Gallery in Hillsboro Village. Amidst the space’s high ceilings and multitextured modernist art pieces, designers Lain York and Joy Patterson present us with a modestly effective drawing room, where Niece, dressed primly as Theo the art dealer, reads from pages of correspondence and declaims the important episodes in the life of his gifted, tortured sibling.
Many details of the story will be familiar, but thankfully this is no mere recounting of things we already know. In addition to the more widely discussed aspects of van Gogh’s life and career, we learn that he was epileptic, a fact that may have had some bearing on notions of his “insanity.” We learn that he did receive some positive critical notice in his lifetime, yet rejected Theo’s attempts to promote his work. Not least of all, this production engages elements of art history, as we gain insight into how various events shaped Vincent’s choice of subjects.
Under the direction of Denice Hicks, Niece offers an impassioned and fully focused performance. He sensitively yet oh so rationally presents us with the Theo that may well have been. Not merely reading the letters, Niece uses them wisely as the fulcrum for dramatic action, and, with a crackling slap of his hands, he transforms himself, sometimes wildly, into Vincent himself. This toggling back and forth between roles is quite effectively done, and it is certainly a fine showcase for Niece’s youthful yet undeniable skills.
Throughout the proceedings, a rear-wall projection provides opportunities to glance at dozens of examples of van Gogh’s powerful sketches and paintings, includingbut not limited tothe eternally beloved “Starry Night,” “The Room at Arles,” “Sunflowers,” the earthy series of works capturing the lives of coal miners and weavers, and the remarkable series of self-portraits. Finally, Tenor Cierpke’s atmospheric piano music provides an understated yet moving aural backdrop.
Circle Players’ second offering of the theater season, Getting Away With Murder, opened last weekend for a four-week run at TPAC’s Johnson Theater. The play is a bit of an oddity: a nonmusical work coauthored by Broadway musical legend Stephen Sondheim (along with George Furth).
Seven people gather at an Upper West Side Manhattan office for a group therapy session, only to find their psychiatrist lying dead in the next room. Instead of calling the police, they decide to solve the mystery of whodunit themselves; then it’s revealed that the culprit is one of them. Each of the main characters represents one of the seven deadly sins, and their names are fairly thinly disguised anagrams for the same. This is just one of the more obvious displays of Sondheim’s famous affection for puzzles and wordplay, and in some ways, this play is just one big verbal exercise for the composer.
Getting Away With Murder had a brief Broadway run in 1996, taking its place alongside Sondheim’s other infamous failures (Merrily We Roll Along, Anyone Can Whistle). It actually has some value as fairly sophisticated mental entertainment, but it requires the kind of acting that Circle Players isn’t able to pull off. With all due respect to a cast that no doubt cares, most of the performances are amateurish, and all suffer from common community theater afflictions: bad direction and the taint of seeming underrehearsed.
Act 2 is better than Act 1. Jennifer Nolan projects her sexuality nicely (even if she does nothing else), and actress Pat Rulon shows command of a few skills. The rest of the players are pretty lackluster, with the sole exception of Michael Tajalle, who does a brief but winning turn as Roberto, the doorman. This isn’t a play that will be seen very often in Middle Tennessee, and for this reason, it’s worth noticing. But it’s a shame that what is interesting about it dies a quick death in this production.
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