Review: Art (Soulpepper)

Photo of Huse Madhavji, Oliver Dennis, and Diego Matamoros in Art by Dahlia KatzIn Soulpepper‘s production of Art, Yasmina Reza’s 1994 one-act play which won the 1998 Tony for Best Play, friendships are threatened and the nature of art and creativity is questioned. Serge (Diego Matamoros) buys a very expensive painting that is the epitome of modern art: it appears to be, essentially, a blank, painted-white canvas, with a few white lines running across its expanse. Serge loves his painting, while Marc (Oliver Dennis) derides it. Yvan (Huse Madhavji) plays both sides, desperate to be the peacemaker and to be liked by both men.

Reza’s script deftly handles the commonalities between modern art and friendship, in that both of them are rife with projection. As we see what we want to see in a completely white canvas – though Serge would argue that his painting is not actually white – we often see what we want to see in our friends, trying to build them in our own image. Our reaction to abstract art is more of a comment on ourselves than on it; so is our reaction to our friends’ choices.

Presented in a series of vignettes, monologues, rotating pairings and a couple of extended scenes with the full trio that truly become electric, the script is like a Brut champagne, sparkling and fizzing with extremely dry wit. Reza uses repeated phrases to hilarious effect, magnifying the ridiculousness of her characters’ dialogue and the words of the art world as the actors volley the phrases back and forth. The only thing that feels vaguely tired is the “all women are crazy” commentary on all the men’s romantic and familial connections; though it’s presented creatively, thematically, it’s a relic of a ‘90s sitcom.

The actors are all perfectly game for this volleyball match set in a hall of mirrors. Dennis’ Marc presents a sneering, closed-off wall of snark that crumbles into vulnerability, while Matamoros’ Serge starts off exhibiting a tired, patient pride, which slowly evaporates over the course of the evening as he goes on the attack.

Madhavji, in his Soulpepper debut, is the perfect ball, vacillating between the two before collapsing in utter frustration; his monologues about his issues with his upcoming wedding are wonderful showpieces, rising to a fever pitch of mania. Casting-wise, seeing a couple of older white men treat a younger person of colour as if he’s a funny, hapless accessory, and his hesitance to offend them in return, adds an unwritten layer to the text.

The actors have good chemistry, and wonderful rhythm. In spite of this, or maybe because of it, I did find myself wanting, amongst the arguments, more of a sign of what they had before in the 15-year friendship. Yvan asks tearfully why they still spend time together if they hate each other, and it’s a good question. Clearly, things have devolved into toxicity, but it would be nice to see more of an ease and affection with each other, a hint of why the trio is worth saving. When things finally boil over, the fight choreography (Simon Fon) comes off a little stiff, but fits with characters who are clearly more comfortable with their words than their fists.

Aesthetically, the set, by Gillian Gallow, is similar to the divisive painting, all clean white and black lines. A large white wall serves as the canvas that illuminates each man’s choice in art: Serge’s aspirational blank slate, Marc’s representational and pastoral throwback, Yvan’s “motel”-style abstract showcasing his changeable nature. The white wall also forces a comparison with the white painting: are they any different to the eye, particularly from out in the audience? Did their painting take different levels of skill? Why do we value one so much more? It’s a lovely, simple design, though the space swallows up sound a little. The design spills over into the lobby, providing a nice thematic surprise as you exit, so be sure to look around.

Art largely holds up as a delightful commentary on perception and pretension, inviting laughter and groans in equal measure. You might strain to see what’s really on that canvas, and find it’s a reflection of your own face.

Details:

  • Art plays until September 1, 2019 at the Baillie Theatre, Young Centre for the Performing Arts (50 Tank House Lane).
  • Performances run Tuesday-Saturday at 7:30PM, with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 1:30PM.
  • Tickets are $38-$108 and can be purchased online, in person at the theatre Box Office, or by calling 416-866-8666
  • Two ASL performances are offered, on August 25 (1:30PM) and 27 (7:30PM). $20 tickets are available for Deaf or hard-of-hearing patrons and their guests.

Photo of Huse Madhavji, Oliver Dennis, and Diego Matamoros by Dahlia Katz