Is nothing Sacred, Fools?: “The Art Couple” premieres in L.A.
From left, Bryan Bellomo as Paul Gauguin, Clayton Farris as Neil Simon, Brendan Hunt as Vincent van Gogh / Darrett Sanders

LOS ANGELES—When I found out Sacred Fools was mounting a play about Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin I immediately set out to review The Art Couple. Not only had I read about those Post-Impressionist painters and their cohabitation in the so-called “Studio of the South,” I’d seen this depicted in films such as Vicente Minnelli’s 1956 Lust for Life starring Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh and Anthony Quinn as Gauguin. In 2017 AFI Fest screened Robert Altman’s 1990 Vincent & Theo, with Tim Roth as Vincent and Wladimir Yordanoff playing Gauguin. (Incidental intelligence: Quinn won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for portraying Gauguin—up to that point the briefest onscreen appearance to strike Oscar gold.)

In addition, for years since I’d seen the Sacred Fools production of Bertolt Brecht’s Baal, it has been on my reviewer radar. I’ve enjoyed several of their stagings. Because Sacred Fools has shown itself to be an edgy troupe of genre busters unafraid to take risks, it is among my favorite L.A. theatre companies. It is also noteworthy, if not downright foolhardy, that the Fools try to keep ticket prices down.

The combination of these factors headed me right out to Sacred Fools, but its production of playwright and co-star Brendan Hunt’s The Art Couple left me with many lingering questions about mockery, lampoons and spoofs. To be sure, the two-acter has a clever premise: During his pre-True West days, while he’s still a newcomer to New York and a busboy, Sam Shepard (Ryan Patrick Welsh) has a (presumably completely fictitious) cute meet with the hot playwright Neil Simon (Adam Meredith) at Lower Manhattan’s Village Gate nightclub. They collaborate on a script about two straight male roommates—one fastidious, the other a slob—and set it at Arles, in the south of France, where the sloppy Van Gogh (Hunt) is trying to set up a sort of art colony and is joined at the “Yellow House” by ex-stockbroker Gauguin (Bryan Bellomo), who has a more organized, orderly personality.

Hunt’s wily interplay between Simon’s most famous stage/movie/TV comedy, The Odd Couple, and the saga of Van Gogh and Gauguin’s tenure as housemates—the eponymous “art couple”is admittedly witty at times. For instance, Felix Ungar (Jack Lemmon in the movie, Tony Randall on TV) and Oscar Madison’s (Walter Matthau in the movie, Jack Klugman on TV) droll bachelors’ pad date with the English sisters Cecily and Gwendolyn Pigeon is rather humorously transposed to Paul and Vincent hosting two lusty costumed, circus acrobats (Kristyn Evelyn as Angelique Alouette and Laura Nicole Harrison as Toinette Alouette) at their fledgling Studio of the South.

Last week, President Trump lambasted “Alex” Baldwin in a tweet, which could only mean one thing: Saturday Night Live was returning to NBC after its hiatus during the Winter Olympics, and Alec Baldwin would be reprising his recurring role as Trump’s hilarious Doppelgänger. Trump, of course, can dish it out but can’t take it, and he clearly dreads and despises Baldwin’s scathingly funny send-up of him.

Nobody likes to be made fun of, especially in public. But there’s a huge difference between satirizing the rich and powerful, oppressive tyrants—from Trump on SNL, Comedy Central’s The President Show and Showtime’s Our Cartoon President to Charlie Chaplin’s Hitler in the 1940 classic The Great Dictator—and great, if troubled, talents. Especially if they are mentally ill as Van Gogh seems to have been. The scene where the tortured Vincent slices off (part of) his ear is played strictly for laughs and is in especially poor taste.

Assuming he doesn’t blow up the planet, one of the things Trump will be remembered for is his coarsening of the public discourse, and one wonders if this has enabled and encouraged a climate where a parade of such colossal bad taste as The Art Couple’s can be publicly staged, raising vulgarity to new heights (or lowering it to new depths). To be fair, many members of the bifurcated audience who watched the purported comedy from opposite sides of the up to 75-seat Black Box Theater of the Broadwater Theater Complex, with the onstage action taking place in between, were laughing and apparently thought these hijinks were high-larious. But to me, mental illness is no laughing matter and is cruel and insensitive—you know, like Trump shaking and making fun of that disabled reporter during the campaign.

Others may also find the intercutting back and forth in time that analogizes Van Gogh/Simon/Felix and Gauguin/Shepard/Oscar, that’s deftly directed by Lauren Van Kurin, to be ingenious and inspired. Corwin Evans’ projections and the gifted Hillary Bauman’s scenic painting help vividly bring the Post-Impressionist era alive, and there is a giggly inclusion of one doggone painting that made me laugh out loud. The P.A. system also plays some enjoyable pop songs with the lyrics sung in French, which is à propos as much of the action takes place in Paris and Arles. There are also clever titles projected on a wall, including a waggish one about how to pronounce that town located in the south of France.

I’m a big Gauguin fan and in April I am making my 12th trip to Tahiti (the islands go unmentioned in Art Couple) and around my eighth visit to his grave at Atuona, Hiva Oa aboard the cargo/cruiser Aranui, which voyages to the Marquesas in between Tahiti and Hawaii in French Polynesia. Gauguin is my favorite artist (although Van Gogh was admittedly the superior dauber), and his efforts to help preserve Polynesian culture in the face of colonialism’s onslaught was truly admirable, just as his canvases were often drop-dead gorgeous visions of paradise.

Bellomo has the wrong body type to play Gauguin—although considering the fact that women portray Auguste Rodin (Evelyn) and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (Harrison, who may be short but not as diminutive as the 4 foot-8 inch Lautrec, with his atrophied legs, was). But I doubt Sacred Fools could give a flying leap on a rolling doughnut about historical accuracy. (Those artists’ first names are misspelled in the playbill, too, if anybody happens to care.) Overall, playwrights Shepard and Simon fare little better in the show’s depictions. However, Hunt as Van Gogh does bear a resemblance to the painter he mercilessly mocks.

Well, theatergoer, you’ve been forewarned about this tacky, dubious world premiere. Taste is in the mouth of the beholder and if ridiculing the mentally ill and their angst amuses you, this may be your cup of hemlock. But as for your dainty critic, it all led me to ponder: Is nothing Sacred, Fools?

Sacred Fools presents The Art Couple through April 7 on Fri. and Sat. at 8:00 pm, and Sun. at 7:00 pm at the Broadwater Black Box Theater, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood 90038. For more info: www.sacredfools.org.

The third edition of “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” co-authored by reviewer Ed Rampell drops by April.


CONTRIBUTOR

Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/critic and co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist.

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