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‘Vincent’ details life of van Gogh from brother’s perspective in Carnegie Lecture Hall show |
Theater & Arts

‘Vincent’ details life of van Gogh from brother’s perspective in Carnegie Lecture Hall show

| Thursday, June 11, 2015 8:55 p.m
Starry Night Theater Co.
Actor James Briggs as Vincent van Gogh with the painting 'Olive Trees.'
Starry Night Theater Co.
James Briggs will appear as Vincent van Gogh in the one-man play “Vincent” on June 13 and 14 at the Carnegie Museum of Art.

Vincent van Gogh is widely known as the tragic 19th-century Dutch artist who painted “The Starry Night,” spent time in an asylum and cut off his left ear.

But he was so much more, both as a man and as a creative force, according to actor James Briggs, who will bring van Gogh to life at Carnegie Lecture Hall in Oakland in the one-man play “Vincent” on June 13 and 14.

Presented by the Carnegie Museum of Art, it coincides with an exhibition of van Gogh’s work — “Visiting van Gogh: Still Life, With Apples” — in the museum’s Gallery One.

“Vincent” was written and originally performed by Leonard Nimoy, who staged his play in Pittsburgh more than 30 years ago. As founder of the Massachusetts-based Starry Night Theater Company, Briggs reprised the production in 2012 and has performed it more than 100 times since then.

“Vincent” reveals van Gogh through the eyes of his brother and closest ally, Theo. Based in part on hundreds of letters exchanged between the two, it examines Vincent van Gogh’s extraordinary but troubled life and the legacy of his post-impressionist work.

Briggs will portray both brothers in the 85-minute production that includes 100 big-screen images of van Gogh’s sketches and paintings to visually underscore his evolution as an artist.

“The crux of the play is to show the world who this man really was and what he gave us, which was an incredible body of art,” Briggs says. “I try to flesh out van Gogh’s humanity. He was a man of incredible passion. He did everything with gusto 10 times beyond what anybody else would. Ultimately, that got him into trouble.”

The play is set in 1890, a week after van Gogh’s death, believed to have been a suicide at age 37, when a distraught Theo gathered his brother’s colleagues and friends to eulogize his life.

“Nimoy did exhaustive research,” Briggs says. “A lot of his script comes from letters the brothers wrote. I read excerpts from 25 or 30 onstage.”

Like his father and grandfather, van Gogh initially worked as a preacher who ministered in the coal mines. He came from a large family, but it was Theo who was most involved with his care, Briggs says.

“At times, they were very close and, at times, their relationship was explosive, as was Vincent’s with his parents. At one point, Vincent wanted to marry a prostitute, which, as you can imagine, did not go over well with his preacher father.”

He also failed at love with a cousin he’d hoped to marry.

Van Gogh’s complex friendship with painter Paul Gauguin, which is believed to have led to the severed ear, also is explored in the play. “He deified Gauguin, but they also fought and fought,” Briggs says.

Diagnosed with epilepsy, van Gogh was often heavily medicated, which may have compounded his problems, Briggs says. “Neither the illness nor the medications were well-understood at the time. He probably also had some form of bipolar disorder that wouldn’t have been well-understood, either, back then.”

Yet he was prolific.

“At one point in the show, Theo talks about his brother being in the hospital and sick and hallucinating but still able to work and paint,” Briggs says. “In the last 70 days of life, he created 100 pieces of art — 70 paintings and another 30 drawings.”

One of the ironies of van Gogh’s life is that he sold just one painting before he died and was largely panned by critics who considered him marginally talented and called his work madness, Briggs says. “One critic said, ‘He uses blood and fire instead of color.’ Sometimes Vincent could laugh it off, but it was hurtful to him.”

Van Gogh also struggled with art teachers, who tried to push him in a direction that he considered boring, Briggs says. “He didn’t want his paintings to be academically correct. He wanted people to look at his work and feel what he felt when he painted. He pushed boundaries.”

This weekend’s production marks the first time Briggs has brought “Vincent” to a museum venue, particularly one that is showing van Gogh’s work.

The play and the exhibition are an ideal pairing, according to museum spokesman Brad Stephenson.

“Because of our van Gogh show in the gallery, we thought it incredibly appropriate to bring ‘Vincent’ here, especially since it has received such stellar reviews elsewhere in the country,” he says. “We’re always looking for interesting ways to put the art in our galleries into context for people and to connect people to the artists in deeper ways.”

Deborah Weisberg is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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