-Theater Review by Victoria Kennedy–
Baltimore, September 5, 2014: The Vagabond Theatre, in Fells Point, opened its 99th season with a production of “Art” written by Yasmina Reza, translated by Christopher Hampton, and produced by special arrangement with Dramatists Play Service, Inc. Directed by Howard Berkowitz, “Art” explores themes of friendship, taste, status and individuality.
Serge, a dermatologist, has modernist interests in art and fancies himself a collector. When he unveils his latest acquisition, a white canvas with varying shades of white stripes, to Marc (Mark Scharf) and Yvan (Eric C. Stein), however, he is startled to find his friends unappreciative and his style questioned. His peers see the impressive piece as an affront, due to its high price tag and lack of personal appeal. In turn, their friendships are threatened.
Marc, a snobbish aeronautical engineer, believes Serge (Steven Shriner) was foolish to pay such an exorbitant amount for work of questionable artistic value. He delivers a humorous and sarcastic opening monologue that sets the tone for the play, describing the piece as “white… and if you screw up your eyes, you can make-out these fine diagonal lines.” Likewise, when Marc pays a visit to Yvan, who is an indecisive, custom-paper salesman, the two discuss the painting. They laugh mockingly at Serge’s expense, ridiculing the high price he paid for something neither would consider to be “art.” What ensues is a witty, comical and sophisticated performance. The three men must discover their individual voices, learn to own their feelings and break confidences to arrive at a new understanding of friendship that accommodates and appreciates differences of opinion.
The ensemble cast is convincing in its individual roles – using dialogue that is often profane and biting. Intelligent commentary revealed in monologues gives the audience additional insight into each character’s cynical observations. The humor with which each character confronts the deep-seated issues impacting their friendship varies, based on each of their personalities. Marc is acerbic, often dropping one-liners meant to insult the intelligence or intentions of the others. Scharf’s facial expressions, as he delivers these blunt statements, draw easy laughter from the audience. Serge, on the other hand, is portrayed as accomplished but unsatisfied. He seeks validation from his friends in his quest to indulge his artistic interests. The poles established; Yvan vacillates between the two stronger personalities, afraid to own his opinions. At one point, Marc insists he has to choose between them. Yvan does, however, put his foot down at their very strong suggestion that he cancel his upcoming wedding but warns them he will “burst into tears,” at the prospect of his friends not attending. Collectively, the audience is presented with a well-orchestrated comedy of manners exemplified by its tight repartee and witty comebacks.
The settings, (each character’s living room) evoke a contemporary art aesthetic, with shades of gray lining the walls in geometric shapes, a cream colored sofa and bar – all standard for each dwelling. One central piece of artwork, however, differs in each abode, thereby differentiating the male characters’ identities. Marc’s place has a classic landscape painting hanging. Yvan’s piece is a still-life that is – according to his friends – evocative of “hotel art.” Serge’s space is the most avant-garde, defined by the painting at the center of the conflict. In the tradition of The Emperor’s New Clothes, the most important thing is what’s not being said: Serge purchased his painting out of genuine love, not the opportunistic and pompous reasons Marc presumes.
By the end of the performance, the modern piece has precipitated a serious crisis. Serge, Marc and Yvan realize they have built their friendship based on assumptions and a shared need for validation that runs deeper than initial appearances. Truthful confessions sting, causing the three friends to question their instinct to spend time together. When Yvan poses the question, “Why do we see each other, when we hate each other?” a turning point is reached. The trio has an opportunity to act in the spirit of art and choose new ways of expressing themselves. Moving forward as friends, they have a chance to find laughter without stealing joy.
Prepare to be entertained and to see real-life dilemmas and scenarios addressed as the friends excavate the underlying issues uncovered by one friend’s foray into the world of Modern Art. The show is running until September 28, 2014, at Vagabond Theatre.
Post Photos Courtesy of Tom Lauer and http://vagabondplayers.org/