Anger-filled ‘Art’ charts disintegration of social boundaries

This weekend, Cap and Bells put on “Art,” a Tony award-winning play by French playwright Yasmina Reza, which follows a contentious five-by-five foot white canvas and its ability to threaten to tear apart the relationships of the three friends, Marc, Serge and Yvan. The play begins with Marc giving a monologue, voicing his consternation as to why Serge, one of his best friends, would buy a work of art for 200,000 francs, when the alleged masterpiece by posh artist Andre in question is just a white canvas with three white diagonal lines running through it.

The scene then switches to Serge showing the work to Marc for the first time. Marc is incapable of hiding his contempt, laughing haughtily and calling the Andre a “piece of shit.” Serge is hurt by his friend’s blunt insults and the two immediately begin fighting. While their conflict is initially about the Andre, it soon escalates to more personal concerns. Marc scorns his Serge’s desperate desire for wealth and social status, while Serge finds Marc’s pretention and judgment unbearable.

The two soon drag their innocent friend Yvan into the fray. Yvan is barely capable of running his own life: he hates his humdrum job as a stationary salesman, and is completely overwhelmed by his upcoming marriage. His childlike desire to please others and avoid conflict is endearing at first but soon drives everyone, including himself, mad.

As the tension between the three increases, the characters treat each other with a bare minimum of civility as they attempt to hit each other where it hurts the most. Marc’s acerbic condemnation of the painting, Serge’s hypersensitivity and Yvan’s whimsical but fragile, people-pleaser nature spell a recipe for disaster. Their fights turn from debating whether or not the Andre is white (Yvan feebly attempts to pacify Serge by saying he sees some yellow and red on the canvas, garnering laughs from the audience) to Serge insulting Marc’s wife. Tears are shed, fists are thrown and felt-tip markers are drawn when the characters’ loathing for one another prove to be too much for their friendships.

While there are only three characters, the play used two students to play each character. One remained onstage, on an elevated platform, during the traditional dialogue. The other served as the inner voice, delivering the monologue under a spotlight on the floor next to the stage, further emphasizing the myopia of each character’s perspective.

The set is imaginative and immediately piqued interest, even before the play started. The stage is roped, evoking a wrestling ring in an apt metaphor for the emotional struggle between the three characters. Outside of the ring are three stools, where the actors that perform the monologues sat while dialogues unfold on the stage and in the wrestling ring.

The play was performed with a rotating cast, with each actor switching between the on-stage and off-stage (inner voice) version of his or her character during each performance. Rebecca Shoer ’13 and Justin Jones ’16 played critical Marc; Sophie Montgomery ’14 and Paige Peterkin ’16 the newfound art patron Serge; and Ashley Meczywor ’13 and Sandy Shedd ’13  as the conciliatory Yvan.

All six actors gave great performances. The fact that two distinct actors collaborated on the portrayal of a single character made each even more three-dimensional. Shoer delivered Marc’s bitterness, arrogance and scathing tone so well that it was easy to find her character utterly repelling, while Jones’ Marc revealed him to be softer and more emotionally vulnerable than the character would like others to know. Montgomery’s Serge was aggressively defensive about his painting, while Peterkin betrayed that his frustration does not come from Marc’s dislike of the painting but rather Marc’s refusal to see how anyone could have a worthy opinion that is different from his own. Meczywor gave an outstanding performance as Yvan: Endearing, humorous and easily flustered, Yvan’s  character provided much-needed comedic relief to the overwhelming tension that dominated throughout the play, and Meczywor fully delivered with great comedic timing and exaggerated childlike facial expressions.

“Art” was a wonderful production. Although it already had well-written dialogue, the play was enhanced by compelling acting and a creative set; although rife with drama, not once did it come off as histrionic. “Art” forces both the characters and the audience to think about interpretation, the emotions of others and changing relationships. Who knew a white canvas with three white diagonal lines could be so thought-provoking?

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