Theater » Theater Feature

Ears to You

Playhouse on the Square and the Brooks reinvent Van Gogh.


Van Gogh's paintings have so much depth. You can see the passion in them. And you don't so much look at them as you look into them," says Rob Satterlee, Playhouse on the Square's guest director for Inventing Van Gogh, a joint production with the Brooks Museum of Art where the play is being performed.

Satterlee admits -- with more than a trace of embarrassment -- that he discovered Van Gogh in 1973 shortly after hearing Don McLean's song, "Vincent."

"Can you believe the first time I ever directed a play about Van Gogh I was actually dumb enough to use that song?" he asks, bringing the butt of his hand against his forehead and comparing the literalness of his early choice to Van Gogh's shortsighted contemporaries who looked down on the disturbed painter's now-celebrated exercises in color and depth. Of course, like all dedicated artists, the director's palette has grown considerably, and this time around he won't be using McLean's soft-rock anthem.

"It's kind of a joke [at Playhouse] that I'm the guy who directs all the shows nobody will see," Satterlee says. His previous shows in Memphis include a memorable, if criminally under-attended, production of Side Man, Warren Leight's saga of aging jazz players, and an extraordinary, but barely seen, take on Lanford Wilson's Book of Days. As a stage manager for Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, Satterlee worked on the Tony-winning production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest with Gary Sinise and Suzan-Lori Park's Pulitzer Prize-winning experiment Topdog/Underdog. He hopes that Inventing Van Gogh will break his Memphis curse and that audiences will come out to see the play.

"I don't want people to think, Oh no, not another boring play about art and artists that I'm going to sleep through," Satterlee says, although at one point he thought it might be. After six months of researching the period and the historical characters, the director had a conversation with the playwright, Steven Dietz. "In the play, Van Gogh says, 'First you paint the apple. Then you paint it again, and then you paint it again. Well, [Dietz] told me to forget all of that. He said, 'Just paint the apple ... this isn't a play about 19th-century painters. It's about characters.'"

Inventing Van Gogh tells the story of Patrick Stone, a modern painter (played by Jonathon Lamer) who is experiencing artist's block and has been unable to finish a painting for years. When the artist (who despises Van Gogh's brutish glopping of paint on canvas) is offered a substantial reward to forge a "lost" Van Gogh self-portrait, he is forced to rethink his own artistry and to confront the same dark angels that drove his subject into madness. While engaging in art crime, Stone is visited by visions of Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and other characters from the period, who challenge him, shame him, encourage him, and provide him with a refresher course in passion and in the history of modern art.

Dietz's interesting, if not entirely compelling, drama has its share of weak points. The conceit that anyone could hate Van Gogh's most famous paintings with such vehemence may not be implausible, but it is difficult to understand. The coupling of a self-absorbed character plagued by artist's block to the certifiably ill and manically driven Van Gogh who was known for finishing at least one canvas a day, highlights the shallowness of modern malaise. This is where the director's artistry comes into play, and Satterlee has pulled from his own experience to humanize the impenetrable Stone.

"The last show I [stage-managed at] Steppenwolf was called The Pain and the Itch. It's a brutal play that deals with a hateful family. There's a child on stage, and porn is playing on a big-screen television. I would go home angry every night -- mad at the whole world -- and wondering why we were doing this awful play that had absolutely no redeeming values. And then the light went off," Satterlee says, comparing his experience with The Pain and the Itch to Stone's inability to embrace Van Gogh. Shortly before opening night, Satterlee was taken aback as he watched one of the adult characters scolding a child simply because he'd had a bad day. He realized he'd done the same thing, and once the first connection was made, Satterlee began to see the truth and the poetry in a play he had previously despised. "Suddenly I was looking 'into' the play instead of just looking at it," he says.

Satterlee describes his acting company, which includes such local heavy-hitters as Brian Mott and Jeff Godsey as a dream cast, who bring a lot to the table.

"Jeff wants me to tell [the playwright] something," Satterlee says. "He says, 'We painted the apple and then we peeled it.'"

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