ORLANDO — There’s a special message at the end of the show “Van Gogh Find Yourself,” that seems both appropriate and a bit inspiring. The show that focuses on the life of Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh, courtesy of a performance by Walter DeForest, also ends with DeForest making a comment about $200 — which, he points out, usually gets a good laugh (and it did indeed from the audience I was with.)
And if you’re also an artist — of paintings, fiction novels, stage plays or photography — you’ll instantly relate to his message. If there are artists you passionately love, chances are you’ll find it even more inspirational (I hope).
“Van Gogh Find Yourself” isn’t what I had expected, but it wasn’t a letdown by any means. The show, now being performed at the Orlando Museum of Art as part of the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival, starts out like a comedy — and in a technical sense, it is (at first). Portraying a Van Gogh who wants the world to know about the man, and not just the artist, and not just a rehash of the tragedies and hardships that came to dominate his biography, DeForest starts off by inviting five people from the audience to join him on stage.
He seats them at two tables on opposite sides of his art display easel, gives them their own painting supplies, and asks them to create. Naturally, he does the same. As Van Gogh, he speaks directly to the audience, urges them not to be judgmental about what his chosen participants create, and seems to be having great fun with everyone inv the auditorium. The show feels experimental, an audience participation piece; it’s hard to figure out where it’s going.
But after having his junior artists create a few of their own minor masterpieces, DeForest settles in for the meat of the show: telling the audience, through a first person narrative, about the life of the Post-Impressionist painter. He brings to this show two great strengths.
One, he has good material to work with. Vincent Willem van Gogh, born in 1853 and a tragic suicide in July 1890 at age 37 following years of mental illness, was a fascinating personality. Using Van Gogh’s own letters and writings, DeForest recounts his life in Paris, struggling not to create brilliant works of art, but to find any success doing it. He often wrote about his “sadness and loneliness” and endured years of miserable poverty. That lasted until July 27 1890, when Van Gogh shot himself in the chest. There were no witnesses and he died 30 hours later.
But what a legacy he left behind: in just over a decade he created 2,100 artworks, which included 860 oil paintings characterized by his bold colors. Of course, his success after his death was phenomenal; last November, Van Gogh was a top seller for auctions at Christie’s in New York.
Knowing what a fascinating personality and life story Van Gogh offered, I was intrigued with this show, and it didn’t disappoint. The other strength is DeForest himself, who remains in “character” — from the genial artist at the beginning who jokes with the participants he’s invited to stage, to immersing himself into the artist he’s portraying. His Van Gogh performance is surprisingly low key, intimate and engrossing. He doesn’t aim for flashy drama or hysterics; instead he walks us through the often painful and humiliating personal challenges he endured from his brother and the rest of his family, not to mention the grinding poverty that haunted him until his dying days.
If you’re a fan of van Gogh’s work, you’ll definitely want to see this show. But stay for that final, highly appropriate message; it’s well worth it.
“Van Gogh Find Yourself” is being performed at the Orlando Museum of Art at Orlando Fringe. Tickets are $12 and the show runs for 55 minutes. You’ll need to buy a $10 Fringe button first.
Upcoming performances are on Sunday, May 20 at 1:45 p.m.; Tuesday, May 22 at 7:30 p.m.; Friday May 25 at 7:15 p.m.; and Saturday, May 26 at 2:30 p.m.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..