The Austin Chronicle

Review: Penfold Theatre's Vincent

Penfold Theatre proves that size matters in surprising ways when painting a portrait of Van Gogh

Reviewed by Bob Abelman, March 31, 2023, Arts

"Beyond Van Gogh," the touring exhibition that paused at Austin's Circuit of the Americas in 2021, filled 500,000 cubic feet of Quonset hut with 60,600 frames of hi-def ceiling-to-floor projections of Vincent Van Gogh's Post-Impressionist oil paintings. Though immersive, lost in its sheer size and conscious effort to make static paintings resonate in minds grown accustomed to processing digital imagery was a sense of the angst behind the artistry of these late-19th-century masterworks.

The small-scale Vincent – a one-act, one-man play currently being staged by Penfold Theatre – does precisely that. Vincent's life story is told from the perspective of his art dealer brother Theo shortly after Vincent's death and just six months before his own. Unable to find words to express his grief at the time of his brother's funeral – "It's a burden on my soul, what I wanted to say and I couldn't," he states at the start of the play – Theo finds those words here by sharing letters that were exchanged between the two.

In those correspondences, along with the depth and discernment shared by Theo, we learn details of Vincent's backstory and discover that his most pronounced, defining quality was a threatening, all-consuming emotional intensity that scared locals and manifested itself in religious fervor, blind romanticism, and self-harm during his recovery from unrequited love. And, of course, it produced Vincent's unique artistic outlook and those brawny brushstrokes and daring colors apparent in his astonishing paintings.

The play, originally written by Phillip Stephens, was adapted in 1980 by actor Leonard Nimoy as a vanity project to take on tour not long after the release of his autobiography I Am Not Spock. It was built with plenty of acting moments in mind – lots of dramatic self-reflection by Theo and no shortage of melodramatic climaxes after the reading of a poignant letter from Vincent, to showcase Nimoy's breadth and range. In fact, the script often sacrifices grace and fluidity to accommodate those moments and any theatre company taking it on requires an actor at its epicenter to not only do justice to this emotional Theo but eke out whatever poetry he can be found within these pages.

Penfold Theatre has such an actor in Ryan Crowder (who alternates performance dates with fellow company co-founder Nathan Jerkins). As he reads the letters aloud, Crowder's narrow and expressive face and sad eyes capture the tortured soul of the man who wrote them. And then, after a pause, they bear the empathy and excruciating pain his Theo feels as he reflects on what he has just read.

Theo’s burden is given additional weight by the black, period-appropriate funeral suit Crowder is wearing (courtesy of costume designer Buffy Manners) and the intermittent accompaniment of soft, tragic music (a recording by local vocalist Julie Slim with Shirley Johnson on accordion, with sound design by Lowell Bartholomee). Throughout the performance, a few pieces and parts of Vincent’s paintings and drawings are projected on the back wall, which serve as points of reference rather than anything integral to the narrative.

Scenic/lighting designer Natalie George has constructed two spaces to anchor Crowder’s storytelling. At center stage is a period desk and chair, and to its far right is another chair, a vase containing a few signature sunflowers, some candles, and Vincent’s hat. To our far left is a well-used painter’s easel and collection of brushes draped in a black cloth, that could well have served as a makeshift memorial at Vincent’s funeral. It is never referenced or utilized by Crowder, but clearly establishes Vincent’s presence in the room. All this sits atop large, overlapping Persian rugs that add some rich color and texture to the proceedings.

Beth Burns' direction is at its best when she has Crowder hold his ground and tell his tale. His small, specific gestures – fastening and unfastening the top button of his coat, for instance – and fine acting are more than enough to hold our attention. And yet, Crowder sometimes launches himself across the performance space, from one chair to the other, to deliver lines as if a voice in his head reminded him to improve the sightlines for those poor souls sitting in the far reaches of the audience. It's hard to tell whether this is purposeful direction or impulsive performance, but the actor pretty much owns the room without having to use all of it.

Small, intimate staging. A personal story told well. That's how you make static paintings resonate.

Penfold Theatre's Vincent

Ground Floor Theatre, 979 Springdale, 512/850-4849
Through April 8
Running Time: 1 hr., 10 mins.

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