November 27, 2021
By Alexei Spindell
Persevering through a number of setbacks due to COVID, Kimber Lee’s to the yellow house has finally made it to the stage at the La Jolla Playhouse, now showing through December 12th. The two hour and forty five minute play provides us with a colorful window into a less represented chapter in the life of Dutch Post-Impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh.
The “yellow house” refers to Van Gogh’s home in Arles, France, where he would experience an artistic awakening and produce his most famous works. The play is concerned mainly with the two years leading up to his move to the yellow house, which he instead spent at his brother’s apartment in Paris.
In to the yellow house we see Van Gogh (Paco Tolson) arrive in Paris and barge in on the life of his more successful brother Theo (Franky J. Alvarez) in hopes of building a career as an artist. But he is met with an unwelcoming art world – even as a student of art he is not taken seriously, as he clashes with his would-be mentor (Marco Baricelli) and fails to connect with fellow artists (DeLeon Dallas, Alton Alburo). Van Gogh finds some relief and inspiration in a fleeting romance with the clearer-minded Agostina Segatori (Deidre Henry) – former art model and proprietress of the Café du Tambourin where much of the story takes place.
This time in Van Gogh’s life is portrayed with almost no trace of success or promise for the now beloved painter, as the Parisians do not recognize his talent and disapprove of his antisocial behavior. This Van Gogh is abrasive, erratic, and struggling madly to find his artistic voice. The story might have been in danger of presenting us with nothing but the grim life of a difficult and seemingly untalented man, but this is mitigated by our knowledge of what he would soon become.
With a brighter future in near view, the story is freed to reach a high level of intensity – it is a trying time for Van Gogh and the people close to him, this is given a remarkably emotional portrayal from everyone.
The set is wonderful, with designer Takeshi Kata authentically portraying apartments, cafes, and the streets of Paris within a rotating, two-story scaffold structure. Canvas projection screens display animated, painterly images reminiscent of Van Gogh’s work, changing to reflect different tones in the story. Justin Ellington’s score provides viewers with a bit of magic towards the end as Van Gogh, in his first moments at that yellow house in Arles, unpacks his famous grey felt hat during the peak of a gentle piano number.
There’s power in a tale of such struggle and failure being told through the life of an artist as celebrated as Van Gogh. A balance is struck between the brutally relatable story we are given and the glorified reality lying just outside of it. It is a thoughtful and well executed play, and a commendable way to return to live theatre.