This review of Walter Michael DeForest's Van Gogh Find Yourself at 59E59 Theaters was written by Dr. Thomas G. Jacoby and published in Volume X, Issue 6 (2016) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!
Van Gogh Find Yourself
Written & Performed by Walter Michael DeForest
59 East 59th Street
New York, New York 10022
Van Gogh Find Yourself is part of East To Edinburgh (New York's Annual Edinburgh Festival Preview). The piece was written and performed by Walter Michael DeForest, who promoted the show as an "interactive portrait play." My biggest issue with Van Gogh Find Yourself might very well be a generational one. I can remember a Teddy Roosevelt impersonator visiting my school when I was young. This actor had studied the life of TR and performed a three-dimensional portrayal of the ex-President in a given year. This meant that questions from later in his career were "off-limits" in the sense that, if you asked the actor about things that hadn't happened to him yet, he would only appear mystified. All other questions were "fair game" and we certainly asked some doozies.
Walter Michael DeForest's portrayal of Vincent Van Gogh, which he calls an "interactive portrait play" is a very different animal. It's more like a person you might meet in a bar or cafe saying to you, "Hey, let me pretend to be Van Gogh for a little while and tell you some stories from his viewpoint, so you get a better appreciation for who the man was." This could be somewhat confusing for an older audience, as this is not like the impersonations of historical figures to which they might be accustomed. Before the show began, DeForest grabbed an audience member's cell phone and held it aloft: "Look at this amazing device that shows pictures and can let you communicate with people on the other side of the world!" Okay, you might think, an actual Van Gogh transplanted into the modern world. But that's not the show at all. We are presented with a Van Gogh who has certainly grown the proper red beard, but who talks freely about his own death and his perspective on his own life from after his passing, as exemplified in his comment to a person who wrote to Vincent's mother after his death questioning some of his "line choices" in his art. Van Gogh said, "I just told him he'd understand, later." You did no such thing, Vincent, you were dead!
If all this seems unbearably confusing, that's not a fair description of the performance. The stories are well told and interesting, starting with Van Gogh's earliest career, as an evangelist with the Dutch Reform Church assigned to a mining region in southern Belgium, where he became acutely aware of the poverty and suffering of the miners. He spoke of his friendship with Paul Gauguin and offered a fascinating perspective on the incident of his earlobe getting cut off, and his drunken attempt to present the severed lobe to a local prostitute. Even his explanation of his suicide raises questions about what actually happened in that field in Auvers-Sur-Oise. Clearly, DeForest has done his research and developed an artistic interpretation of Van Gogh, the man, as opposed to Van Gogh, the artist. Thought-provoking indeed, but not really an "interactive portrait play" in the sense one might expect. The type of interaction that occurred consisted of things like "What's your name? Nice name." and the constant sketching of portraits for audience members, which seems intended to portray the artist's known creative compulsion. As the portraits are given to the audience members, DeForest tells them the price, "Seven Hundred Fifty Thousand Dollars", "Two Million Dollars", and the like. DeForest has stated, in the program, his intention to break the Guinness Book of World Records' existing record for "Most Portraits Drawn In 12 Hours" at the upcoming Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August, where he is scheduled to perform this work many times. His commitment to drawing attention to "Van Gogh Find Yourself" is admirable, but the constant brand naming and "hash-tagging" with repetition of the catch-phrase can become distracting at times.
My suggestion to Walter Michael DeForest would be to find a clear intent for his considerable talent as writer and performer, to decide if this is indeed a play of interest to small academic groups or art enthusiasts, as he states at the end. If that is the case, he might do well to set aside the name-branding and the record-setting, and focus a little more on the artist's actual influences and experiences. Or, conversely, DeForest could take this in a very different direction, bringing to life an immortal steam-punk Van Gogh, not bounded by time or space or historical anachronism.
The truest moment of the performance occurs when DeForest as Van Gogh describes a clay sculpture of an elephant he made when only nine years old. When his mother showed off her son's accomplishment to an acquaintance, young Vincent crushed the sculpture, saying, "I did not do this for you. I did this for me." It's hard for an audience not to draw a parallel between young Vincent and Walter Michael DeForest, considering this statement and regarding the performance. For more information, visit www.vangoghfindyourself.com