May 10, 2005

UT show invites different takes on Art

Serge buys a painting: white lines on a white background. One friend, Marc, is visibly upset by his purchase, insisting that the painting is "a piece of shit." The painting grows on Yvan, the other friend. Despite its simple premise and short running time, Art is about more than just its title. As can be expected, the three men's friendship are called into question, with explosive results, but the play isn't really about camaraderie either. It would be fair to say that Art, like art, is highly subjective to the audience's interpretation of the events presented onstage.

The brevity of the play, which runs a little over an hour, leads to its sharp impact. We are introduced to the characters quickly, and their personalities are simple enough to grasp: Serge (Charles Umeano) is an individualistic, thoroughly modern man who nevertheless craves his friends' approval; Marc (Christian Doll) is the self-important, contemptuous classicist who does not believe in anything; and Yvan (Joel Putnam) is the would-be reconciler of the group who is unfortunately absorbed in his own shortcomings.

Think of the trio as a Freudian model of the working brain. Serge is the ego, man's need to assert himself in the world; Yvan is the id, acting on instinct; and Marc is the superego, attempting to constrain the ego by imposing outside values. Their identities are static, but it is the durability of these character traits that makes the play interesting, as the men are pitted against each other in a series of conversations.

The first conflict we are introduced to is Serge versus Marc. At first Marc is deeply troubled by the purchase of the painting, but upon further introspection, he begins to question the very nature of their relationship. When did Serge become the kind of guy who would buy such a thing? To Marc, contemporary art is "no sooner conceived than dead," so a 200,000-franc painting seems like a joke, and he reacts as such, laughing in a manner which Serge describes as "vile and condescending." It is evident that Marc sees Serge -- —indeed, all of his friends -- —only in relation to his own values: "What are [my friends] apart from my faith in them?"

A more subtle conflict is that of Serge and Marc versus Yvan, whom they see as a pushover -- —an inconsequential, spineless man. When Marc rants to Yvan about Serge's purchase, Yvan asserts that Serge has "lost his sense of humor," and yet when Serge says the same about Marc, Yvan agrees. His intentions are perhaps the purest out of the three men, although he is also the most lacking in definition. By his own admission, he is never sure whether he is happy or not, and he probably relies too much on his shrink, who dispenses advice like: "If I'm who I am because I'm who I am and you're who you are because you are who you are, then I'm who I am and you're who you are. If, on the other hand, I'm who I am because you're who you are, and if you're who you are because I'm who I am, then I'm not who I am and you're not who you are." Take your time; mull it over.

Because the three men reach no real catharsis and experience only half-hearted growth, it must be difficult for actors to embody such characters. Doll, Umeano, and Putnam seemed at ease, however, and each brought surprising depth to otherwise flat personas. Marc's bursts of outrage were made comical, not farcical, by Doll's facial expressions, ranging from "slightly exasperated" to "on the verge of a nervous breakdown." Likewise, there is only one word to describe Putnam's quick-paced delivery of Yvan's nervous monologue about the women in his life: wow.

The development of Art isn't particularly compelling; the truly profound aspect of this play comes from the viewer's interpretation of these men and their concepts of art. There are many quotable lines that serve to trigger our minds, to get us thinking about man's relationship with art and how that affects man's relationship with himself and others. Serge: "A man of his time plays his part in the fundamental dynamic of evolution." Yvan: "Nothing beautiful was ever created through rational argument." And so on.

The play is gently ironic but perhaps too forgiving of the three men. Each man's flaws are never fully explored in their own right, only as foils to the others' shortcomings. Art is not a thorough exploration of the men's friendship, nor does it contain a statement about art. Instead, it forces us to choose a protagonist, to take a closer look at our own relationships with comedy, irony, and art. As a scenario piece, a concept piece, Art translates well to the stage, especially an intimate setting such as the one UT offers, where the characters are allowed to take shape and dominate.