For their final show of the 2016-2017 season, Players’ made the unorthodox decision to hand the February slot over to a director team, rather than a solo visionary. The production is Yasmina Reza’s ‘Art’, directed by Guillaume Doussin and Ben Mayer-Goodman. Together, the duo stage an impressively professional rendition of Reza’s opus.
‘Art’ follows three middle-class professionals as they discuss, argue, and physically fight over a painting. Serge (Steven Finley), a well-to-do dermatologist and art connoisseur, purchases an absurdly expensive piece of contemporary art that is essentially a blank white canvas. Convinced that he has made a savvy purchase, he decides to flaunt his acquisition to one of his oldest friends, Marc (Sara Harvey). Marc, an offbeat aeronautical engineer with a penchant for the classical, immediately scoffs at the painting, repeatedly calling it “shit”. While Marc vehemently opposes the idea that such a painting could be art, Serge’s mind remains unchanged. The two call in their third friend, Yvan (Douglas Clark), to break the tie. Yvan, however, is a spineless, neurotic, stationary salesman who fruitlessly tries to appease both of his hard-headed friends. What begins as a small tiff over some overpriced art quickly balloons into a much larger debate on the state of their relationship with one another and their own identities. The three friends find themselves at an impasse: do they solve their issues or is their fizzling friendship irreconcilable?
When asked what the play is about, the directors have different, but complementary ideas. Mayer-Goodman sees the most important theme as identity, “Do we identify ourselves as the way we view ourselves or do we identify ourselves the way others view us?” This question is central to the characters’ conflict and forms most of the climax of the play. Doussin, on the other hand, contends that ‘Art’ is very much so a play about art, namely the conflict of classical versus the modern. He sees the subject of art as the device that Reza uses “to unearth deeper questions about human relationships.” The directors’ differing understandings of the script is a factor that likely contributes to the show’s ability to espouse questions about both art and relationships. However, it is their palpable creative connection that allows ‘Art’ to balance these dual themes.
Doussin and Mayer-Goodman’s cooperation is particularly evident in the production design. The set is simple—a couch, a chair, a small cabinet—but it is effective in conveying three very different characters’ apartments. This is achieved through a clever use of three periaktoi that spin around to render the unique wallpaper of each character’s home. The colour and pattern of the periaktoi are then matched to the respective characters’ costumes. Since ‘Art’ is not divided into distinct scenes or acts, a coherent set and lighting design are imperative. The transitions are seamless, which allows the show to flow without interruption for its ninety-minute runtime. This sleek design choice gives the production a particular air of coherence that can be difficult to capture in student theatre.
The cast only furthers the professionalism of the production. Harvey, Finley, and Clark all deliver strong performances with sharp comedic timing. It is Clark’s performance as Yvan that stands out the most. Not to say that he is any more talented than his peers, but Clark has the advantage of playing the most empathetic character of the three. Yvan is the loser—he has no money, he is a pushover, and he’s in therapy that he clearly cannot afford—and for that reason he is the most relatable. Serge and Marc parallel each other and most of the arguing is between the two, so Yvan becomes the odd one out. Clark utilizes this incongruence to give Yvan the most physicalized performance of the three. He stands his ground as an individual on the stage in a way that Finley and Harvey cannot, making him the most eye-catching actor on stage.
Were it not for the strong acting and masterful staging, ‘Art’ would frankly be close to insufferable. It is not that ‘Art’ isn’t clever or dramaturged to perfection; it is that its plot and characters are out-dated. If you didn’t know any better, it would seem that Serge and Marc keep pocket thesauruses in their blazers and suit-pants in order to out-articulate one another in their verbal sparring. The dialogue reads more like an episode of Fraser than any contemporary comedy. ‘Art’ has an impressive roster of accolades and has been performed countless times across the globe, but the story fails to find a place in 2017. The middle-aged characters are pompous and self-obsessed in a way that quickly becomes an agitating dialogue of unchecked privilege.
While the transcendent messages of friendship and identity still ring true, Art is a bourgeois script that was indulged by mainstream theatre criticism in its heyday. Ironically enough, this pitfall of Art is fitting to Doussin’s perception of the play: there is a conflict between the old and the new and the question is, can it be resolved? While at first I questioned if the positive aspects of the show make up for the exceedingly pretentious script, by the end of the performance I was sure they did.
Art runs from February 22-24 at Players’ Theatre (3rd floor SSMU, 3600 rue McTavish). Tickets are $6 for students and $10 for general admission.