Part of what made Vincent Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” the most overpriced commodity in art is the burst of emotion in the still lifes, with some of the wild, unruly pedals shooting up, while others, gnarled, curl toward death.
The bouquet of sunflowers brought in one of the first times we see the artist in the Washington Stage Guild production of “Inventing Van Gogh” are, by contrast, silk — store-bought, uniform, perky in their manufactured way, as if straight from a Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft store. They also signal one of the first problems of the production.
Steven Dietz’s story of a glum contemporary artist who is asked to make a forgery of a long-rumored but never seen final self-portrait by the tortured Impressionist is needlessly complex. The artist hates the deception, hates the wily forgery expert who asks him to do it and hates van Gogh’s art. So it’s odd that his artistic mentor is a professor who is obsessed with van Gogh and this missing piece.
The professor, who went so far as to kill himself in the same manner and field as the artist, is still a part of things, showing up to introduce the story as if from one of his lectures and introducing his daughter to the young artist.
Van Gogh begins to tramp through the action, spouting aphorisms and philosophy from his own writings. He talks about his relationship with Paul Gauguin and Gauguin comes to life; he mentions a local muse and she enters the stage.
That they are both played by actors previously playing the art dealer and the other girlfriend takes an adjustment, especially since there aren’t the same kind of parallels to their roles.
All the time the artist scowls and watches it unfold in his art studio — a space so uncharacteristically clean and spare it might be mistaken as a dance studio.
This clean set by Carl Gudenius and Sigrid Johannesdottir is dominated by two large screens. One hoped they’d be used for some big projections of art, side by side comparisons, or scenes of the forgery in the making. Instead they reflect the yellow lighting that begins the show and are much later used for some brief, bad shadow play. (If echoes of the past come back with regularity to the stage, why have a couple of them just be shadows?)
A jumble of inexact details helps undo any suspension of disbelief. In addition to the perfect fake sunflowers, there are the carefully spaced splotches on the artist’s work shirt and a clunky dial phone in a contemporary artist’s space.
Under Steven Carpenter’s direction, the angst of the artist played by Christopher Herring was a little overwrought as well. We know he was supposed to be pacing around his easel at which he sometimes furiously works, but he was nearly breaking into a sprint.
When he tells van Gogh he didn’t like his work, the painter is shocked, though in his lifetime few but his brother ever appreciated his art. Still, as the Dutch artist, Ryan Tumulty brought a lot of life and requisite passion to the part.
He was at the mercy of Dietz’s script, which threatened to break into madcap collisions of 19th century and 21st. (“Mouse pad?” van Gogh asks.)
But Tumulty could roll with the production’s punches, as he did in two opening-night hiccups. When a painting (“Sunflowers” itself!) falls, he feigns shock and emits a little shriek. When grapes spill by mistake in another scene, he picks them up and pops them into a crate.
Jessica Shearer as the romantic interests adds electricity every time she’s on stage. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that both Tumulty and Shearer were in Spooky Action’s exuberant “Optimism! or Voltaire’s Candide” this spring.
Brit Herring (apparently no relation to Christopher) has fun in his dual role as a devious art dealer and Gauguin; Lawrence Redmond has a more difficult time distinguishing between his two roles as professor and the bad doctor who was van Gogh’s patron.
Deep issues of art and life come up in “Inventing Van Gogh,” mostly derived from the artist’s writings, but they are mired in a story that gets more complicated than it needs to be in a play whose excess seems at odds with the artist’s vibrant simplicity. And the canvas everyone furiously works on during the play? When a light shines through it near the end, it is blank.
Catlin is a freelance writer.
by Steven Dietz. Directed by Steven Carpenter; setting, Carl F. Gudenius and Sigrid Johannesdottir; lighting, Marianne Meadows; costumes, Lynn Steinmetz; sound, Frank DiSalvo Jr. With Christopher Herring, Ryan Tumulty, Lawrence Redmond, Brit Herring and Jessica Shearer. About 2 hours and 15 minutes. Tickets $20 to $40. Through Nov. 24 at the Undercroft Theatre, Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Call 240-582-0050 or visit stageguild.org.