Theater Review: “Art” at VMFA’s Leslie Cheek Theater
Richmond Shakespeare and Sycamore Rouge’s inaugural preview of Art felt nothing like a dress rehearsal last night. Their combined rendering of French playwright Yasmina Reza’s narrative provokes a stimulating, gripping descent into art, philosophy, and foremost – the nature of friendship. Only running in Richmond this weekend, don’t miss the opportunity to catch this show.
Cooperating skillfully – following in the footsteps of a collaborative trend in Richmond, most notably with Henley Street Theatre and Richmond Triangle Player’s The Last Days of Judas Iscariot – these two companies bring live theater to the newly renovated Leslie Cheek Theater at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts for the first time in more than 8+ years.
Serge’s purchase of abstract art may be the impetus of conflict in Reza’s script, but his and Marc’s quarrel over reading Roman philosopher Seneca’s “On the Happy Life” precipitates the friends’ disintegration in this Richmond staging. Yet, Director k.b. saine’s deeply theoretical, well-paced proceedings tone down Marc and Serge’s relational aggression and instead channel the friendship’s (…or shall I say rivalry?) exponential hostility as an indictment of Jacques Derrida’s deconstructionist philosophy – in laymen terms – that “modern” art is a cultural construction.
Beginning with audiences seeing Yvan desperately crawling on stage, the production tries but intermittently delivers sharp moments of Reza’s acclaimed comedy. I got the impression that most of the laughs came from a reflection on stage of our own pretentious, bourgeois ideas of “What Makes Art” instead of from this ensemble’s steady delivery of satire. The serious discourse around questions of friendship engages your cerebrum the most in this offering.
Reza’s 1998 Tony Award winning script moves through an exchange of introspective monologues combined with combative dialogue. The sequence of soliloquies is spot on with each actor staying true to his own voice. This petite cast of three’s execution of their inner contradictions on art and friendship favors the monologues more so than the dialogue, however. I think my assessment has to do with the fact that J. Ron Fleming and d.l. Hopkins employed lofty, flamboyant voices but their acting picked up when they reverted to their natural intonations.
Yvan (David White) grapples with his own descent into despair as a cultureless Mr. Cellophane who serves as Marc and Serge’s punching bag, while Serge (J. Ron Fleming) rationalizes his purchase of an all-white piece of contemporary art, and Marc (d.l. Hopkins) reveals a deep-seated acrimony toward his friend of many years.
Keith Saine’s set evokes pre-21st century geometric styles but this rancorous duo’s use of iPhones negates my inferred, initial estimate of the time-period; anyway, the set’s flat, sandstone color emboldens the canvas’s controversial whiteness. Brittany Diliberto’s lighting design adds an airy shadow on stage and to Serge’s modern artwork.
“Art” runs through April 24, 2011 at the Leslie Cheek Theater. On April 29, “Art” will continue at Sycamore Rouge in Petersburg and run through May 14. For more information or to purchase tickets, please visit http://www.vmfa.state.va.us/Default.aspx. Photo credit, Richmond Shakespeare.
Matthew Miller is the former arts editor and chief theater critic for GAYRVA.com. A Chicago native, he holds a B.A. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He currently resides in Richmond, VA and is a member of the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Matthew Miller on Twitter twitter.com/matthewkmiller
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