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Letter from the Artistic Director on Art

by Martha Lavey

The third production in our five-show series, Art sits at the middle of our season of the imagination. How fitting that the heart of the imagination is art. The play begins with a dispute that arises among three friends about a white canvas. An expensive white canvas. A painting that produces wildly different interpretations of its meaning and value. What we come to understand is that the abstract, subtle surface of this painting serves as a perfect site for the projections of its viewers. Playwright Yasmina Reza is really deft in the way that she reveals the inner lives of her characters. First, there is the conceit of the play’s settings. The scenes are set in each of the men’s homes. The playwright establishes the similarity of these environments and then assigns an identity for each space by situating a painting in each home that expresses the character of the resident. Second, she gives each character a revealing professional identity. Serge, the buyer of the painting who exclaims its numinosity, is a dermatologist, an expert observer of surfaces. He defines his space with the white canvas that provokes the play’s conflict: it is a non-figurative work, all of the action of the painting is on its surface. His friend, Marc, the man who finds the painting laughable and Serge’s attachment to it fraudulent, is an aeronautical engineer. He is a man whose profession trains him to see the world from a distance; he is a person committed to the long view, whose own taste leads him to landscape painting. “Classic” landscape painting. And finally, their third friend is Yvan, the hapless inheritor of a career. As Yvan explains, “having spent my life in textiles, I’ve just found a new job as a sales agent for a wholesale stationary business.” His career in stationary is prompted by his upcoming marriage—he is entering his wife’s family business. Yvan’s engagement in both textiles and stationary expresses his tactile bias—he is engaged in the feel of things, in the utilitarian exchange of practical commodities. His painting of choice—the one that hangs prominently in his living room—is described as generic, a ‘hotel painting,’ which, we come to understand, was painted by his father. Yvan’s taste in art, like his choice of profession, is guided by relationships—he takes what is handed to him. Other details of their taste are revealed: their predilections in food and reading; their choice of partners. Reza’s attention to these details expresses the essential characters of each of these men, their point of view in the world. They see and feel the world differently—they are, respectively, men who experience the world in a manner that is up-close, detached or utilitarian. These differences in perspective coalesce around their varying views of the blank canvas. More importantly, their visions of the blank canvas express the different ways in which they see their friendship. The painting becomes a flashpoint for the expression of how they have each regarded their connection to one another. As they negotiate the meaning of the white canvas, they are negotiating their assumptions about each other, and about their friendship. Further, Reza gives us access to each character’s inner life through the device of the monologue. It is in monologue that the men are able to reveal their point of view directly to us, the audience, unfettered by the obligations that the presence of the other characters imposes. We get a confessional expression of point of view and a candor that is contrasted with the negotiated behavior of their friendships. In this way, we, the audience, participate in the relationship dynamic being explored in the play: the speech of the characters—the candor they permit themselves—is determined by who is in the room at any given moment. The listener shapes the speaker. The assumptions in each of these men’s disposition toward the world are invisible until the white painting brings them into view. Funny, that. Funny that it is a “blank” surface (the perfect projective site) that makes visible the unseen, the unremarked-upon. As Marc reports, his problems with Serge began when he heard Serge use the word “deconstruction.” Marc invokes “deconstruction” as a theoretical term—a school of thought that Marc identifies as the claptrap of postmodernism. Reza is slyly inserting the term to describe what is truly underway in the course of the play: the relationships among the men are being deconstructed, the hidden assumptions are being uncovered (“unpacked” in the parlance of post-modern theory). The baggage of their relationships comes clearly into view. The move that Reza achieves in the play is to train our attention, following that of the characters’, away from the issue of the painting (the “art” in question), and toward the art of friendship. What seemed natural, given, easy, is deconstructed and must (if friendship is to endure) be re-crafted, made, achieved. For me, the charm of the play is how economically, how suavely, Reza is able to traffic between the stylish verve of conversation and the emotional depths of the need, disappointment and longing that define our friendships. Friendship, unruffled, assumes that you believe and think what I believe and think. We’re traveling through the world, seeing the same things and it is a solace and assurance to have a companion. How awful to discover that you are seeing or feeling something else entirely. What happens in the breach? Can differences be remediated? Should they be? How much lying is required in the art of friendship? Does the lying nullify the friendship? (Or is it a generosity?) The playfulness with which these issues are negotiated in Art are being met by a playfulness in the casting of the production. Ensemble member Fran Guinan will be playing, during the course of the run, both Marc and Serge. His alternate will be, in the first half of the run, John Procaccino in the role of Serge. In the second half of the run, Fran plays Serge and his antagonist is played by ensemble member Ian Barford in the role of Marc. Ensemble member K. Todd Freeman is our Yvan for the first part of the run, Joe Dempsey takes over as Yvan in the second. The thinking in mixing up the cast is that the play will be a volatile and alive experience with these actors inhabiting the roles. The show you see will morph and change over the course of its run—as our friendships morph and change over the course of their run. We are fortunate to have such supple, skilled actors—under the direction of ensemble member Rick Snyder —inhabiting these roles. In our season of the imagination, we invite you to enter the world of Art, a witty engagement with the nuances of the art of friendship.