What the critics are saying:

Terrific 'art' probes brittle nature of friendship

By Sam Hurwitt, Correspondent

Posted: 04/06/2016 12:11:40 PM PDT


When 'art' first came to San Francisco in a touring production in 1999, we couldn't have known how ubiquitous Yasmina Reza's comedy would become. Certainly there was something exciting about this smart script by a French playwright (in an English translation by Christopher Hampton), freshly anointed with Moliere, Olivier and Tony playwriting awards from its Paris, London and Broadway runs.

Theater companies all over the Bay Area have been producing it ever since, and the impressive thing is that familiarity hasn't worn away much if any of the play's appeal.

Now Center REPertory Company brings 'art' back to Lesher Center for the Arts, where the late Playhouse West performed it in 2004. Center REP artistic director Michael Butler's lively production is strong enough to make it a matter of no importance whether or not you've seen the play before.

Although the story centers on a debate about whether a painting is any good or not, 'art' isn't really about art. It's about friendship, raising questions about what that connection is based on and what are its terms and boundaries.

Serge and Marc have been best friends for 15 years, but their friendship is called into question when Serge buys a very expensive painting that appears to be nothing but a plain white canvas. Seeing this kind of modern art as little more than hucksterism, Marc is livid that his friend has fallen for it so avidly, and the ensuing argument makes them wonder if they've been mistaken about each other all this time. Their mutual friend Yvan is caught in the middle, trying to please everyone and get them to get along, while they take their frustrations out on him.

The play doesn't have much in the way of technical demands -- just a living room and a painting -- so it's interesting that Joshua Lipps' slick set is as elaborate as it is. The furnishings are sleekly modern and almost all white, with various arty knickknacks filling the bookshelves. The walls are covered with seemingly empty, overlapping frames, some containing panels that glow different primary colors to represent the friends' different apartments. The characters often express their innermost thoughts in monologues to the audience, and when they do, they step out onto illuminated platforms in front of the stage.

The cast of the Center REP production is fantastic. J. Michael Flynn is compulsively curmudgeonly and highhanded as Marc, and Liam Vincent's Serge is so touchy and defensive that their scenes together are almost as stressful to watch as they are for Yvan to suffer through. It's tensest of all when they're trying to be nice.

Yvan is not an intellectual. He really doesn't care about this stuff, just about his friends. But he's already incredibly stressed out with the planning of his wedding, where again he's trying to please everybody and winding up pleasing nobody. Having his friends sniping at each other, and at him for being so wishy-washy, is almost more than he can take. Cassidy Brown is sweetly amiable and sympathetically unsettled as Yvan, an easygoing guy who's becoming very, very nervous. Brown's delivery of Yvan's long exasperated speech about the politics of stepparents' names on wedding invitations is hilarious.

Of course, the argument about the painting is absurd, and only becomes more so the more it escalates. But the issues it brings up, about the hard-to-pin-down reasons that people choose to become friends and how the dumbest disagreements can compromise that choice if handled poorly, are very real and easy to identify with. Butler and the cast nicely accentuate the comic excesses of the quarrel, and at the same time the underlying heartbreak of a good friendship on the rocks comes shining through.

 


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'art' at the Lesher Center for the Arts

By Jaime Robles

Posted: 04/16/2016


Art! Wherefore art thou Art?


The trouble starts when Serge, dermatologist and budding art collector, shows his best friend Marc a newly acquired painting. The painting is a small one in museum terms, not even 6’x 6’. And it’s white, all white. Except white comes in different shades. So if you “screw up your eyes” you can see fine white lines painted diagonally against the all white background.


Marc thinks it’s just a heap of white crap.


Then Serge tells him it cost 200,000 francs. Appalling! At least to Marc. And appalling to Serge that Marc should question his taste, his judgment and his values. Because that’s what Marc focuses his ridicule on. He cannot believe that his friend has not been swayed by the forces of the art market that dictate that we pay outrageous prices for paintings by mining our more dubious desires for power, status and reputation. Love cannot be the source of our incomprehensible desire for acrylics on canvas.


So begins Art!, an award-winning play by French author Yasmina Reza, which opened recently at Center REP theater in Walnut Creek. The play, which premiered in Paris in 1994, was translated into English by British playwright Christopher Hampton for its London premiere in 1996. It moved to New York in 1998. It’s won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy, a Molière Award, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Best Play, a Tony for Best Play. And it’s had heaps of brilliant actors in its three roles.


Yes, three roles. The third character is Yvan, stationery store clerk, mediator and sloth. Yvan is the pivotal role, the one that questions the issues of status and power that Marc and Serge are struggling over. He is the unquestioned beta who watches the struggle of the two alphas, placating either one when the other isn’t present and hoping the 15-year friendship between the three endures this latest battle. He is the character who is marrying a woman he doesn’t entirely love because he can no longer tolerate the idea of growing old alone.


Center REP has three Equity actors in the roles, and their performances are skilled, energetic and convincing. J. Michael Flynn plays Marc as caustic, controlling and utterly sure of his values, even though his manipulation of Serge leaves his motivations in question. Owl-eyed and be-spectacled Cassidy Brown is Yvan the Unsure, who finds himself farther along in his life chronologically than he would like to be given the paucity of his achievements. Liam Vincent is smart, committed and unsentimental as the art-collecting novice Serge, who finally is willing to sacrifice his painting for his friend. All three actors meld together in a well-timed performance. The snappy direction is by Michael Butler.


The entire play takes place on an unchanging setting of abstract frames suspended on the three imaginary walls of the stage. We move from Serge’s place to Marc’s place through a change in the colors of the squares inside the white frames. In Serge’s home all the “paintings” are red light. It’s a clever device, set design was by Joshua Lipps. The monologues held as asides to the audience are marked out by spotlighting the speaker and darkening the stage behind. Lighting was by Kurt Landisman.


There is something distinctly European about the relationships between the characters, about what their expectations of friendships should entail. Even so the play touches on that valuable subject of what love and even loss of love inflict on the individual soul.


Art! continues at the Center REP at the Margaret Lesher Theatre in Walnut Creek through April 30. For tickets and information, visit centerrep.org.

 


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CENTER REP’S SPLENDID PRODUCTION OF YASMINA REZA “ART” QUESTIONS THE REAL MEANING OF FRIENDSHIP AND IT’S MARVELOUS

By Vince Mediaa

Posted: 04/21/2016

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THREE FRIENDS MEET TO TALK ABOUT “ART” AND THEIR FRIENDSHIPS ARE TESTED, IT IS FUNNY AND ENGAGING. BRING YOUR OWN PICTURE FRAME.

Center Repertory Company's production of ART, now on stage at the Margaret Lesher Stage through April 30th, paints the perfect picture that there is a deeper truth to what we think we see. Do we believe that one can appreciate artistic simplicity. Can we put a price tag on it. ART the play about a white painted 4 X 5 foot canvas worth $200,000 paints a comedic twist on how we appreciate modern art and our friendships. Written by Playwright Yasmina Reza (God of Carnage), ART is a French language play translated by Christopher Hampton, it premiered on October 28, 1994 at the Comedie des Champs-Elysees in Paris before moving to West End and Broadway. Playing in New York from February 1998 through August 1999, ART opening-night cast featured Alan Alda (Marc), Victor Garber (Serge), and Alfred Molina (Yvan), who snagged a Tony-nomination for Best Actor. Eventually, ART won the Tony Award for Best Play and went on to a 600-performance run. The play makes it second return to Walnut Creek, as I have seen this work a few times, each trip with these three men is always eye opening.

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Directed by the accomplished Michael Butler, his creative team at times is center stage with a brilliant set and light design by Kurt Landisman and Joshua Lipps. The set becomes one of the characters in this tale of defining friendship. It is a black box that is itself a framed picture. The comedy raises issues about art and how we perceive it to be. The focus is on the true nature of a 15-year friendship between three men of age, Serge, Marc, and Yvan. Serge (Liam Vincent) indulges himself with a new compulsion for modern art by purchasing a white painting at top dollar. Marc (J. Michael Flynn) is in complete shock about Serge’s new squeeze, and their friendship dives into a strain of worry, differing opinions, and resentment. All to do with “what is art,” Yvan (Cassidy Brown) gets sandwiched into the bickering of his two dear friends, pleading for pacification. Yvan’s first hilarious monologue says it all about his questionable friendships "If I am who I am because I am who I am and you are who you are because you are who you are then I am who I am and you are who you are, but if I am who I am because you are who you are and you are who you are because I am who I am then I am not who I am and you are not who you are."

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The actors never leave the stage when not engaged in the sections. They sit far on either side away from the apartment like setting. It is a one act play with clever scene changes incorporated in the lighting transitions. There are several monologues in the show that are directed towards the audience where each character walks into a special point down stage, lighting them, and bringing them to that 4th wall. Most of the story takes place in Serge’s flat, but the surrounding nature is always the white painting. Serge mentions a rat that runs loose in his elegant apartment that he could care less about, but sets up the idea that this setting could be a maze for these three men or mice.

At first glance, an audience member is welcomed into the flat, designed by Scenic Designer Joshua Lipps. It is an all-white monochromatic color palette of furniture and walls, except for the large red carpet in the middle and the multi-colored backlit framed art on the walls. Landisman’s lighting scheme for the cubicles add a colorful sense of pace, personifying the character’s inner emotions. It also adds a digitized setting which invokes a futuristic way of looking at art. Theodore J.H. Hulsker’s sound design is a perfect mix of techno sounds and light mood changes as the three first rate actors move from scene to scene. Victoria Livingston-Hall cleverly toned costumes make the men authentic with grey and earthy tones, making them stand out on Lipps’ set. Serg look is sleek and post modern with sockless shoes and thin pants and jacket, which complements the dapper look of Marc's scarfs and arrogance. I was most impressed with Yvan’s look, since Brown is the one who needs to roll and bounce off the set pieces. His hoodie and polo top is flawless and the grey stripe color mix is well crafted. Less than 90 minutes, this French comedy is elegantly drawn like a soft brush of subtext as we are forced to stare at the white canvas and maybe see ourself.

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Butler has cast three accomplished actors: Liam Vincent a Center Rep vet, and was the highlight at Cal Shakes production of “Irma Vep”. J. Michael Flynn, who started his career on “General Hospital” is an important vet of Bay Area theatre. Cassidy Brown returns to the Center Rep after his stunning performance in “39 Steps”. The three are superb portraying longtime friends thrown into crisis after one has bought the modern painting for a sum that challenges their value systems and friendships. They make a distinctive trio in a comedy that draws out their playful spirited personalities.

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Butler’s fast paced direction brings out full flavors of each actor’s take on the characters. Local favorite Liam Vincent’s Serge is touching, innocent, serene, and so delicate that J. Michael Flynn’s compulsive, cantankerous, top maverick, narcissistic Marc breaks and intensifies the inner peace of Serge. This falls into an awkward and uncontrollable discomfort for the sweet and sympathetic nature of Cassidy Brown’s Yvan. Brown’s portrayal of Yvan is marvelous, especially during his breathless monologue about his mother and step-mothers, making him incredibly nervous, stressed, and about to pass out during his best friends bickering. The cast is highly comedic, great on timing, and just pushes the envelope as the story defines their friendship with a very clever ending. It is worth staring at that white canvas as the play fades to black. ART is strong, sophisticated, and a simple memorandum to the strength of friendship. This is an excellent production and a great way to open your summer theatre season.