TAMPA — The first thing you see in the playhouse is the lighting, soft yellows streaming through faux windows of a fairly barren set. Couple that with the classical music overhead, and everything feels cozy as a blanket, small, intimate, contained.
But Inventing Van Gogh, the final production of the season from Jobsite Theater, is not small. It is big and ambitious, so much so that the story leaps from a modern-day art studio to 19th century France, sometimes back and forth within mere minutes. Living people interact with dead people, actors play multiple characters, time and place is fluid.
The high concept could cause whiplash. I did hear someone in the crowd say "I'm so confused," at intermission, so it's definitely possible some might find Inventing Van Gogh too hard to follow.
I found it mostly easy, and in fact, quite beautiful. The play directed by Karla Hartley manages to feel tight, despite the big leaps of belief it demands.
The premise: A shady art authenticator named Rene Bouchard (Ned Averill-Snell) taps contemporary artist Patrick Stone (Steve Fisher) to forge a Vincent van Gogh painting, creating a mysterious story and making lots of money in the process. Rene knows Patrick is uninspired and vulnerable after the death of his mentor, and also has secrets he wouldn't want getting out.
But Rene doesn't know Patrick is having visions, or maybe actual visits from Van Gogh himself. The driving question of the play unfolds, both literal and existential — is the painting really a fake? In our lives, what is real and what is perceived?
Jordan Foote is a doppelganger for the artist, with his slim constitution and red hair and beard. His accent is a little confusing, neither Dutch, French, American nor vaguely British. Apart from that, he's a forceful actor who captures the artist's descent into the clutches of mental illness with empathy.
Patrick and Van Gogh have a parallel love interest in Haley and Marguerite, both played with penetrating sadness by Nicole Jeannine Smith. Greg Thompson plays both Patrick's teacher obsessed with Van Gogh, and Van Gogh's doctor, whom the artist famously painted in his "Portrait of Dr. Gachet." He also serves as narrator, effectively gluing the time shifts together.
A major comic highlight is Averill-Snell's turn as eccentric French post-impressionist Paul Gauguin, a boisterous drunk who thinks those painters who went before knew how to dazzle without any insight.
To that end, the whole play feels like a bit of an art history lesson for the casual consumer, and maybe a tasty helping of nerd kibble for big-time fans (or haters) of Van Gogh. All kinds of questions about his work come up. Did he paint too fast? Was he overrated and under-practiced? Was he obsessed with his own image?
Maybe the truth in art doesn't matter as much as the stories we craft around it, suggests the crooked Rene: "People always accept the best story as the truth."
Contact Stephanie Hayes at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. Follow @stephhayes.