Playwright: Steven Dietz. At: Strange Bedfellows Theatre at City Lit in Edgewater Presbyterian Church, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr Ave. Tickets: 773-340-2038; www.strangebedfellowstheatre.com; $20. Runs through: Aug. 24
Three years before the start of our story, art professor Jonas Miller set out in search of Vincent Van Gogh's last self-portrait, a mythical "lost" work whose discovery the scholar hopes to accomplish by re-tracing his subject's footsteps with a devotion that may have spurred him to commit suicide in imitation of his quarry. Our story, itself, begins in the studio of Patrick Stone, whose inspiration has stalled under the loss of his mentor and the estrangement of the latter's daughter. Setting the plot in motion is a crooked art authenticator seeking a hungry young painter to fabricate what he will then sell as the legendary canvas. Soon Patrick's workplace is buzzing with activityalong with the ghosts of Vincent Van and HIS troublesome acquaintances.
Certain artistsCaravaggio, Bosch, Toulouse-Lautrecseem always to have an intoxicating effect on writers proposing to delve the mystery of their creative impulse. The most incendiary of them all, though, is the linseed-slinging Netherlander whose manic genius fuels romantic imaginations to this day. Playwright Steven Dietz may attempt to frame his topic in provocative McGuffins, but this only grounds the action for a short while. Soon Patrick finds himself playing host to furious debates between the sensitive Vincent and boorish Paul Gaugin, not to mention a bevy of quarrelsome sponsors and sweethearts, all catapulting us through time at a velocity to induce vertigo in the most ardent Tom Stoppard fan.
Well, why write about antic visionaries, if not to go a little mad? Director Aaron Henrickson never leaves us to wander alone and confused amid Dietz' historical polemics, nor does his valiant cast, led by Patrick Cameron and Riley McIlveen as brothers-of-the-brush whose ideals span continents and centuries as they struggle to lend form to the fleeting formless, while retaining their integrity in the face of mercenary corruption. Indeed, as the reluctant impostor embraces his missionnot for the money, but to fulfill his teacher's lifelong questhe extends his spiritual kinsman what comfort he can from his 21st-century vantage, even as he also contrives to foil his patron's fraudulent plan.
Introducing us to our dramatic universe are a number of artists (names listed in the playbill), invited by the Strange Bedfellows to set up their easels outside the auditorium and exercise their craft in real time over the evening's duration. Thus are we immersed in an environment teeming with inventive actualizationheady stuff, that artistic impulse.