If Vincent van Gogh were alive today, he'd probably be in and out of treatment centers, on talk shows and magazine covers, a media darling and bad boy.
The Dutch artist's tempestuous life has been a continuing source of fascination for writers. Steven Dietz's Inventing van Gogh, currently at Mobtown Players, is the third play I've seen about the troubled 19th-century artist, who only sold two paintings during his lifetime.
The first play was an experimental piece; the second a musical. Dietz couches his play in the form of a mystery, focusing on a final self-portrait, which may or may not have existed.
Ryan Whinnem plays a slimy art "authenticator" who has the provenance of the disputed painting down pat, he just doesn't have the painting. He plans to remedy that, however, by blackmailing a washed-up artist named Patrick (portrayed by Reece Thornbery with bristling anger and bitterness).
At its most inspired, the play is a traditional and psychological mystery, with themes exploring everything from obsession to the nature of creativity and genius. At its least inspired, it devolves into a series of lectures.
Mark Squirek delivers these as Patrick's late mentor, a van Gogh expert who carries his emulation of his favorite subject to extremes.
But after all, this is a play about van Gogh and extremes are largely what it's about. Thornbery's Patrick, for example, becomes so immersed in van Gogh, the 19th century artist (played by Loren Dunn with a masterly mixture of intensity and whimsy) actually shows up in his studio. So does Paul Gauguin, Dr. Paul Gachet (who treated van Gogh) and Gachet's daughter.
Or are they hallucinations? Why else would Gauguin resemble the authenticator; Gachet, Patrick's mentor; and Gachet's daughter, the mentor's daughter? (All of these roles are double-cast, with Tiffany James delivering especially fetching, willful portrayals of the two daughters.)
The best moment in director Alex Willis' skillful staging comes when Patrick's phone rings in the midst of a scene between van Gogh and Gauguin. Comic as this interruption may be, it isn't just an instance of modern technology invading a magical moment, it seems to be a literal wake-up call, a reality check, for Patrick, who hangs up the phone.
Unlike van Gogh's paintings, Inventing van Gogh isn't a masterpiece. But it does explore some intriguing issues, and when the lighting design (by Whinnem) transforms the modest Mobtown Theatre into van Gogh's starry sky, the artist's spirit appears to haunt not only the characters on stage, but also the audience.
Show times at Mobtown Theatre, 3600 Clipper Mill Road, are 8 p.m. May 19, 20, June 2 and 3; 3 p.m. May 21. Tickets are $12. Call 410-467-3057 or visit www.mob townplayers.com.
The Baltimore Shakespeare Festival's Elizabethan theater will be transformed into a festival hall Sunday for its 4th annual Mayfaire, scheduled for noon-6 p.m.
A Maypole dance, live music, sword fighting demonstrations and even a belly dance will be part of the free festivities at St. Mary's Outreach Center, 3900 Roland Ave. For more information, call 410-366-8594 or visit www.bal timoreshakespeare.org.
On Monday, Center Stage's after-school Encounter program will present an evening of student pieces that use acting, singing, spoken word and movement to explore "intersections and crossroads." Students from 20 area high schools participated in this year's program.
The performance will take place at the theater, 700 N. Calvert St., at 7 p.m. Tickets are $5. For more information, call 410-332-0033.