By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
The centrepiece of Art, the Shadow Theatre season finale, is the quintessential modern provocation/sight gag: a big-ticket white-on-white painting by someone famous.
“Modern art” is a perennially combustible subject. Trust me, you can’t be a reviewer and not know that white-on-white diagonal stripes, like beauty, truth, cloud shapes, and good government, are in the eye of the beholder. But in Yasmina Reza’s, er, artful 1994 comedy, a hit (and star magnet) around the world, it’s not so much the painting but its acquisition that’s the canvas for a witty, perceptive exploration of male friendship.
When Serge (Glenn Nelson), a successful dermatologist, lays down 200,000 francs for the all-white Antrios — and moreover loves it — the purchase triggers near-fatal fractures in a long-time three-way friendship.
The white painting is a red flag to Serge’s friend Marc (John Sproule), an aeronautical engineer who prides himself on his skepticism and immunity to trendiness. He laughs out loud when he sees it — and calls it “shit.”
Their younger friend Yvan (Frank Zotter), indecisive and conciliatory by nature, is caught in the middle. Impaled, actually. He’s enlisted as an ally by both, is cautiously affirmative to both, and gets attacked by both for cowardice and treachery. Marc calls him “disastrously open-minded”; later in the play he gets called an amoeba.
The characters step out of the frame from time to time — in squares of light wittily designed by Stephanie Bahniuk to be a counterpoint to the white canvas— to make their case directly to us, in a play of power struggles and shifting alliances. The first scene, where Serge shows off the Antrios to Marc, is a little silent physical comedy of quizzical head tilts of appraisal and hand gestures. You’ll recognize them immediately: the gestures (like Serge’s) that invite enthusiastic praise, of the ‘so waddy think? pretty great eh?’ stripe; the gestures (like Marc’s) of being taken aback (‘you’re kidding right?), then getting exasperated. In John Hudson’s production Nelson and Sproule set up a combustible chemistry.
Art proceeds in brushstrokes, by minute escalations and niggling assessments, to arrive at an explosion of long-standing grievances, frictions, resentments, regrets — a point of ignition where using the word “deconstruction” is like throwing a live grenade, and calling something a “motel painting” is like beheading someone’s dog. Even the term “artist” is a touchy one to Marc, whose initial incredulity progresses to outrage, and then the fury of the betrayed.
The performances have big, colourful, emotional pay-offs. Sproule as the furious Marc, and Zotter as the breathless Yvan, who’s adopted a certain wheedling agility to survive, are up for that, and then some. Nelson has a certain dry urbanity as Serge. And there’s a brief respite in the funny scene where they argue about where to eat; you don’t very often get to overhear three men argue about a restaurant without the clutter of women.
But the production seems rather overheated: it doesn’t so much escalate as explode, immediately. This mis-calibration of fire-power is a little hard on incremental tension and mounting dread: almost immediately Art has nowhere to go but louder. Which means that (a) Zotter’s Yvan gets robbed of the full comic impact of his hilarious show-stopper of a rant about the infinite complications of his upcoming wedding and (b) even a sleek 90-minutes can seem over-extended.
There’s no shouty about C.M. Zuby’s elegant white set, a reference to expensive minimalism,. Amusingly Serge’s place gets transformed into Marc’s and Yvan’s apartments simply by adding paintings signally their respective tastes, or lack thereof. And Bahniuk’s lighting, which adds slats of illumination in geometric shapes and cut-outs is a work of art in itself.
The jaunty music, salsa-diluted jazz, speaks the language of sitcom. But as the questions about art cede to questions of friendship — can it survive incompatible aesthetic judgments? is it better in the end to opt for the white lie, so to speak, over total brute honesty? — Art is moving.
When she picked up an Olivier Award for comedy for Art in London in 1996, the Parisian playwright famously said “I’m surprised. I thought I’d written a tragedy.” She was probably joking.
Written by: Yasmin Reza
Directed by: John Hudson
Starring: Glenn Nelson, John Sproule, Frank Zotter
Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.
Running: through May 14
Tickets: 780-434-5564, TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca