Friends can be lifesavers. Friends can drive you crazy. Friends knowing you so well can cut both ways. They can say exactly what you need to hear, or the last thing you need to hear in any given moment of crisis. Friendship, in all its complicated glory, is at the heart of Art. Yasmina Reza’s comedy is getting a sleek, stripped-down treatment from the folks at the Gonzo Group Theatre. It’s essentially just the actors and the words, putting the emphasis on script and performance in a way that plays to all of Reza’s strengths (and the strengths of good theater in general).
“Was it right to start with a lie?”
Serge (Michael Ooms), Marc (Luke Weber), and Yvan (Josh Vogen) are three friends trying to head out for a night on the town. Yvan has been delayed by some drama around his wedding plans, which allows Marc and Serge just enough time to start wrangling over Serge’s latest acquisition. Serge has bought a new painting for a large sum of money. The painting is completely white, or white on white. It’s either beautiful or completely ridiculous. Serge, obviously, thinks the former; Marc, the latter. Marc also thinks the painting reflects poorly on Serge personally, and that’s when the trouble starts. Yvan walks right into the middle of this, and his efforts at peacemaking just make things worse, and get Marc and Serge to take turns turning on Yvan instead.
“Did I mention I found her ugly, repellent and totally charmless? Because I could have.”
I know, “first world problems” in big capital letters. This was the reason I resisted reading or seeing Art before now. But just like Reza’s other best known work, God of Carnage—which also unexpectedly won me over—there’s something going on at the subatomic level about the nature of relationships between people. Any people. Reza uses comedy, and the absurdity of the arguments people sometimes have, to get at something fundamental about the things which tie us together. Also, the comedy, and comedic battles, reveal just how tenuous those connections can be. Solid relationships, friendly or romantic, can unravel before you understand the consequences of what you’ve said or done. Frankly, we’re lucky more of the landmines embedded in the foundations of our relationships don’t go off more often.
“We’re not talking about you, if you can imagine such a thing.”
The play is being staged in Gonzo Group’s new home, the Baroque Room located in Lowertown in St. Paul, right near the Farmer’s Market. Up a flight of steps and down a long hallway is a small gallery space, a white room with photos hanging on the walls. There’s even a grand piano and a harpsichord. In the corner of the gallery space are three tall white stools and a couple of music stands. The frame for a canvas, with nothing in it, is propped up against the wall. Turns out that’s really all you need. That, and a little stage makeup.
“He’s right. Once in a while you could have an opinion of your own.”
With a production concept as spare as this, all the choices by director Jennifer Harrington and designer Meghan Soberg, however small, make themselves felt. The men are all dressed in some variation of business casual attire, but they’re all barefoot. At the beginning of the play, each of the men uses some basic makeup implements to enhance the face of one of his fellow actors. Later, when the men get into a fight, rather than a physical altercation, they end up defacing each other with the makeup. In a production with such constricted movement, an act like this feels strangely violent—as if we’re seeing the results of an actual brawl. At the end, the men each use makeup to cover over the marks from before. So things are better on the surface, but the wounds still linger underneath.
“Apart from being disastrously open-minded, you’re quite sane.”
The canvas frame with no canvas helps emphasize that the argument is never really about the painting. The production doesn’t want the audience to focus on the choice of an actual painting. It wants us to focus on the people fighting over the painting, and the things that battle is really about. At different intervals, the actors hold out the frame for the audience to take hold of, as if mounting it on the wall. Each time, the audience obliges. We’re looking at them through the frame, they’re looking at us. Another perspective.
“At last you’ve said something approximately human.”
Though the acting always remains as realistic as the dialogue in the script, there are moments that pop through now and again which struck me as very much in the spirit of Beckett’s clowns. (So I wasn’t surprised to discover that Gonzo’s very first production was Waiting for Godot—which I now wish I’d seen. And it’s not often you’ll find me bemoaning the fact that I’ve missed a production of Beckett.)
“I love the way you thought of me. I was flattered.”
Something I nearly forgot to mention was the music. Justin A.E. Busch composed original music for this production, with Ellie Fregni on the viola and Sophie Kerman on the piano. It’s both strange and not strange that I nearly forgot the music. The music is a constant presence, almost like a fourth actor in the production, or another element of the design surrounding the cast. Yet it never feels intrusive, even when it’s drawing attention to a line of dialogue, or underscoring a sequence of the verbal sparring going on throughout. You’re never able to anticipate what the music was going to do, and yet when it appears, it never seems out of place. Not your standard all-encompassing soundtrack, but not a series of simple sound cues either. Like everything in the production, it chooses its moments but never overplays its hand.
“You notice he doesn’t say I’m wrong. He says I’m exaggerating.”
In the same way, all the actors here are just right. Michael Ooms, Josh Vogen, and Luke Weber all have their moments in the script but the most impressive thing they do is working as a three person unit. The thing ebbs and flows like all well-orchestrated arguments, but the interpersonal jousting here is humming along at just the right clip, carrying the audience along for the ride.
“You’re both being very sinister this evening.”
Trying to talk about Gonzo Group’s Art is a little like trying to explain a joke. Picking it apart into its individual components diffuses a little of the magic. It works because theater works. Gonzo is presenting theater in its most basic form, but it’s not cheap. It’s simple and unvarnished and completely accessible. I kind of tripped over this production and I’m really glad I did. Tune out a lot of that extraneous theater noise and go see Art. It’s good stuff. Very highly recommended.
Coverage of issues and events affecting Central Corridor communities is funded in part by a grant from the Central Corridor Collaborative.