What's a theatrical producer to do? Grants are being slashed without warning, ticket sales plummet in proportion to the economy, while the salaries of some artists strain modest budgets to the point of cancellations. Minimizing set changes and elaborate costumes may help, but usually not enough, so the producer resorts to his last option - reducing cast size. In fact, financial demands over the last decade gave rise and popularity to the ultimate cost-cutter, an entirely new form of dramatic literature loosely called the one-man play.
I say loosely because there are many theatrical forms featuring one performer on a stage, and not all constitute plays. Some, like the work of Spalding Gray or Laurie Anderson, are monologues, fancy musings by the author about life, interspersed with picturesque parables to hold the audience's attention. However, the purest incarnation, best exemplified by Willie Russell's brilliant Shirley Valentine, still evolves into a real play. The singular character either assumes all the roles, or one strategic role, and evokes conflict by acting out specific events.
The concept gained initial momentum in the late Seventies, when producers discovered its practical and even exciting implications. Lily Tomlin assembled one of the most effective single-character excursions in The Search For Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, while Vincent Price toured as Oscar Wilde, and James Earl Jones resurrected singer Paul Robeson. Meanwhile, during the same period, on hiatus from covert Romulan peace negotiations, Leonard Nimoy created Vincent for himself.
I only took that cheap shot as a means of arguing the opposite point: Nimoy, slated to carve a niche in history more because of his ears than his talent, has revealed himself on several occasions to be a capable stage actor. No doubt as a way to further emphasize this point and escape the Vulcan rut, he chose a subject most worthy of one-man treatment, a character wracked by pain, love, fury, and other ingredients perfect for dramatic action - Vincent Van Gogh.
Most people, myself included, grew up with misconceptions about Van Gogh. Believing Van Gogh never sold a painting in his lifetime - despite the fact that his brother and sponsor, Theo, was an art dealer - they cite his madness as a consequence of genius-scorned-by-society.(In truth, Van Gogh did sell one piece, The Red Vines, while he was alive.) To his credit, Nimoy did his research, and in Vincent, being given a new face by actor John Fionte in the Minorca Playhouse production, cherished myths are skillfully shattered. Also illuminated, regrettably, are the problems with one-man plays.
Told primarily by a bitter and guilty Theo, who needs to unburden himself after his brother's death, the play offers new insight into Vincent's depressing life. For example, although the painter suffered from a lack of recognition, Theo contends that Vincent had only himself to blame. Sensitive and explosive, the Dutch postimpressionist would not allow his brother to exhibit his work. He seemed to crave suffering, subjecting himself to harsh religious devotion, inappropriate love affairs, and endless artistic struggle. On his deathbed at age 37, lingering from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest, Vincent laments to his brother that he has failed at everything - even suicide.
Oh, and Van Gogh did not cut off his ear to spite a girlfriend. Rather, after a fight with the jealous and conniving Paul Gauguin, he removed the ear and brought it to Rachel, a nasty local prostitute fond of telling customers to cut off their ears. (Historical revisionists even suggest that Vincent, who was an epileptic rather than a lunatic, may have experienced a seizure while shaving.)
Nimoy uses Vincent's own letters, and a stunning backdrop of slides, to portray what must have been a morose existence. The writing is smooth and clear; the narratives acute. So what's the problem? The single worst trap of a one-man show: lack of dramatic tension. Without another character on stage, conflict is thwarted, and dialogue turns to lecture - an exciting lecture perhaps, but not effective theater. Theo isn't passionate enough to dramatize the events; his imitations of his brother castrate Vincent's volatility. He recalls startling examples of Vincent's eccentric behavior, but in his attempts to convey them, manages little more than a gruff voice and knitted eyebrows.
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Under the direction of Joseph Adler, multi-Carbonell winner Fionte does his best with the material. A gifted actor, relaxed and genuine, he simply tells the tale, never milking this dry beast for emotional impact. Obviously Fionte and Adler correctly assessed the role as one of storyteller rather than actor, and so the audience is entertained even in the complete absence of suspense.
I saw Vincent with a group of teens from South Dade High School in Homestead - noticeably more attentive and quiet than many adult theatergoers
- and afterward, Fionte conducted a question-and-answer session. Most enjoyed the play, but voiced a preference for at least two players on a stage, and queried the wisdom of a one-man show. Though unable to pinpoint the cause of their discontent, they easily spotted a lack of conflict. Hopefully they'll experience better examples, such as Shirley Valentine, and learn that this cheaply produced, challenging format only hypnotizes in the hands of a few gifted playwrights.
Written by Leonard Nimoy, directed by Joseph Adler; with John Fionte. At the Minorca Playhouse, 232 Minorca Avenue, Coral Gables, through February 29th. Tickets cost $10, with discounts for students and seniors. Call 446-1116 for more information.