Big White Painting, Little White Lies


Friends. “What are they?!”

That’s the question posed in Yasmina Reza’s 1994 play ‘Art, dramatically re-imagined in a recent off-Broadway production at FIAF‘s Florence Gould Hall. Co-produced by the Netherlands-based experimental theatre collectives tg STAN and Dood Paard, the revival transferred to New York as a part of FIAF’s annual Crossing the Line Festival, which presents international (primarily French language) performing arts productions. The program goes so far as describing the show as “an unforgettable take on the timeless debate concerning the nature of art.” But, like the title ‘Art’ (deliberately set in quotation marks by the author), this is deceptive; the play is not about art at all.

If the abundance of proper nouns in that last paragraph is at all daunting, tg STAN and Dood Paard have strived to ensure that ‘Art’ is not. In this stripped-down, deconstructed (an artistic buzzword the script treats with scrutiny) production, Reza’s modern classic is given a modest update, complicating the play’s original message without forgoing the humor that made it such a critical and commercial success in the 1990s: the original 1998 Broadway production of ‘Art’ won the Tony Award for Best Play and ran for over 600 performances; the 1996 London West End production was even more successful, running for 8 years. The sensational response was owed to the fact that ‘Art’ is actually about friendship—male friendship, to be exact, and how it is a form of “art” itself.

Image credit: Sanne Peper

Set during the mid-90s in Paris, France, ‘Art’ begins with the revelation that a man named Serge has bought a “white painting with white lines” for the price of two hundred thousand francs (approximately $35,000 USD), to the astonishment of his friend Marc. Unsure if Serge, seemingly proud of his purchase, is playing a joke, Marc eagerly mocks Serge, calling the painting a “piece of white shit.” Expecting solidarity, Marc tells their mutual friend Yvan, who initially finds the situation funny, only to visit Serge and see the painting. Reporting back to Marc, he concludes, “It’s a work of art, there’s a system behind it,” infuriating Marc.

On the surface, the play does appear to be satirizing wealth (Serge’s willingness to spend an excessive amount money on something so superfluous), upper-middle class gullibility (Serge maintains that he likes the painting and that it is meaningful), and the pretentiousness of modern art (it’s literally just a white painting). But, although various contending ideas about art are thrown around, it’s obvious that the first section of the play, divided into dialogues and short monologues delivered directly to the audience, is a set up for the dialogue to introduce the contradictory lifestyles of these three “friends”:

  • Serge: a recently-divorced dermatologist splitting custody of his children with his ex-wife. He seems to enjoy modern art. Serge’s financial situation is somewhat unclear. In response to the purchase of the white painting (which Serge affectionately calls “the Antrios,” after the artist who painted it), Marc describes Serge as “comfortably off, but he’s hardly rolling in money.” Later on, Serge has the following exchange with Yvan:

    From left: Frank Vercruyssen (Marc), Kuno Bakker (Serge) and Gillis Biesheuvel (Yvan). Image credit: Sanne Peper

Yvan: You been out? Seen anything?

Serge: No. I can’t afford to go out.

Yvan: Oh?

Serge: I’m ruined.

Serge quickly glosses over this moment, and his “ruin” is not mentioned again. However, it seems that Serge’s finances are less stable than he is willing to reveal to his friends, and the Antrios symbolizes wealth that Serge does not actually have.

  • Marc: an aeronautical engineer. His tastes in art are classical, and he owns a landscape painting depicting the Carcassonne. He seems to be a pragmatist, yet throughout the play he ingests gelsemium, a homeopathic painkiller for migraines (not recommended by doctors), at the behest of his wife Paula. Struck by Serge’s indulgence in the Antrios, Marc takes it upon himself to convince Serge that he’s made a mistake.

 

  • Yvan: recently began working as a stationery salesman, after working in the textile industry for many years. Dissatisfied with his new job, he tells us, “My professional life has always been a failure.” It’s later revealed that Yvan works for the uncle of his fiancé, Catherine, a shrewish woman whom Yvan is now financially bound to marry despite their obvious mismatching. Yvan’s taste in art is amateurish and more sentimental than Serge’s or Marc’s; the only painting he owns is an ugly “daub,” which was painted by Yvan’s own father. Similarly, his reactions to the Antrios are conflict-averse; in individual conversations with Serge and Marc, he seems to agree with both of their interpretations of the situation. As characterized by Marc:

“Yvan’s a very tolerant bloke, which of course, when it comes to relationships, is the worst thing you can be… If Yvan tolerates the fact that Serge has spent two hundred grand on some piece of white shit, it’s because he couldn’t care less about Serge.”

How did such radically different people ever become friends? All three work in disparate, unrelated fields; they have completely different personalities and opinions on art, and they appear to be from entirely different social classes. Even their ages don’t seem to match up; Yvan states that he is around forty years old, but, in the tg STAN/Dood Paard production, Serge and Marc easily appear to be a decade older than him (previous productions of ‘Art’ have often included a similar age disparity—in the original West End production, the actors playing Serge and Marc were both almost twenty years older than the actor playing Yvan). And yet, they’ve all somehow been friends for fifteen years.

While some past reviews of ‘Art’ have complained that this faulty friendship is a result of poor character development on the playwright’s part, the metatheatrical FIAF production emphasizes that these characters and relationships are constructions, and are not meant to be taken as realistic. This point was established beautifully before the play even began: the stage was completely bare as the audience entered the theater. At show time, the actors brought on a small trailer carrying all of the set pieces, unpacking them as Gillis Biesheuvel (Yvan) spoke to the audience in a combination of English and French. When a mother and her young son entered searching for seats, Frank Vercruyssen (Marc) invited them to sit in the front row. Even after the play began, the actors continued setting items and lighting instruments, constructing the show as it was being performed.

A teaser video from a previous performance of ‘Art’ earlier this year at the Théâtre Garonne in Toulouse, France, featuring the same cast as the FIAF production. The costumes and props are mostly unchanged from the show I saw. At the beginning of the video, you can see the cast bring the trailer onstage and begin constructing the set.

An admittedly bad photo of the bucket of olives, which was curiously left at the foot of the stage at the end of the play.

The show is also unusual in that Yasmina Reza approved non-scripted moments, allowing the actors to spontaneously break character and interact with the audience. Gillis Biesheuvel, sometimes as Yvan and sometimes as himself, frequently walked offstage whenever his character was upset—at one point, he passed around Yvan’s “daub” painting, asking each audience member:”Like?”—to which Marc commented: “It’s like Facebook, right?” In another scene, in which Serge (played by Kuno Bakker) said, “Fuck you” onstage, Marc replied, “Don’t curse! There’s a child in the front row!” Later on, the actors passed a bucket of olives around the audience, before taking it back because of “big insurance problems.”

While the play was performed in its original French with English supertitles projected above, the actors spoke most of their improvised dialogue in English, and seemed just as comfortable speaking in English as in French. A running joke involved the actors pointing to the projected English to emphasize what they were saying, and, at one point, Frank Vercruyssen seemed to forget his lines and looked to the projection for help. The production brought attention to how pointless it was to be performing French to a largely non-French speaking audience—or maybe how pointless it was for a non-French speaking audience to be watching a play performed in French?

If not for these light-hearted breaks, the play might easily devolve into a bloodbath. As the story progresses, it becomes increasingly clear how ill-suited these men are as friends. Marc’s “tough love” toward Serge is incompatible with Yvan’s neutrality, while Serge retaliates against Marc’s honesty by spilling some of his own secrets. All three of them are guilty of poor friendship, often by not expressing their true feelings about one another’s life choices—Serge’s disclosure of what he thinks about Marc’s wife Paula is one of the pettiest, most vicious speeches ever spoken in a theater. And while Marc’s worry for Serge initially seems well-intentioned, it’s clearly fueled by his own selfishness.

With the mens’ friendship exposed for the construction that it is, they must choose whether to rebuild it or tear it down. The production wisely made no attempt to deviate from Reza’s near-perfect ending, which humorously resolves the dispute over the Antrios before raising an entirely new set of questions about the nature of friendship, packing as many brilliant plot twists as possible in the space of five minutes. However, the true brilliance here belongs to the actors/co-directors: Kuno Bakker, Gillis Biesheuvel, and Frank Vercruyssen. Where Marc saw a white painting, Serge saw a classic. These actors saw a blank canvas.

A post-show photo of the set of ‘Art’, with the white Antrios center stage.

The tg STAN/Dood Paard co-production of ‘Art’ ran from October 4th to 6th, 2018 at FIAF French Institute Alliance Française: Florence Gould Hall. All references to this production are taken from the Friday, October 5th performance.

All references to the original text of ‘Art’, written by Yasmina Reza, are taken from the 1997 English translation by Christopher Hampton.

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