Before I see the opening of Kimber Lee’s world premiere of to the yellow house, I am familiar with its thick printed script: my partner Marco (Barricelli, who plays three supporting roles in the play) is learning his lines and over time, those at-home pages become a kind of testament to the Covid slow down and to a season postponed. In the summer, with show dates finally set for the fall, Marco carries the script to Arles, France, where we meet my Italian family. Arles vibrates with tributes to the Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh, who spent the final years of his life there. I carry this lucky coincidence with me to the theater as I settle into a sea of spectators, realizing this is my first time back in a full house, full body. I am nervous seeing so many heads, I take a picture, I am teary-eyed with the applause at curtain speech.
Paco Tolson as “Vincent” in La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere production of to the yellow house, by Kimber Lee, directed by Neel Keller; photo by Rich Soublet II.
to the yellow house begins in Arles in 1888, a couple of years before the early death of Van Gogh’s at 37, and flows into the prior two years in Montmartre, Paris, with the painter running away from debtors in Holland and taking refuge in the apartment of his well-known art curator brother. Playwright Kimber Lee depicts a brief time in Vincent’s short life in which nothing and nobody seemed to encourage him to go on as an artist. At the renowned painting school he is allowed to attend only as a favor to his brother, in the frail alliances with his schoolmates, and in his attempts at a relationship with Italian-born cafè owner (and former model) Agostina Segatori, high expectations followed by rejections are the common thread.
The language of the play is irreverent and contemporary, with a particularly brilliant solution at showing Vincent using French: slow, choppy words in English (indicating his early French), give way to fast and furious cursing as if in his automatic Dutch. The set by Takeshi Kata (with projection design by Nicholas Hussong and lights by Masha Tsimring) is immersive, ever-moving: a mix of projected suggestions of Paris, architectural blurs, moving textural patterns, and material squares of non-literal paint. These shifting images are powerful, but so delicately timed by director Neel Keller and the design team that they do not take away from the intimacy of Vincent’s attempts at negotiating love, money, visibility, and art. At the end of Act 1, Agostina and Vincent blend with the set’s striking blue and yellow of Vincent’s later work -- those masterpieces that won’t be painted before the play’s ending. Now that Vincent’s love for Agostina has not become a stable relationship, now that even his brother is fed up with Vincent’s moody outbursts, now that artistic success or even survival seems unlikely, I mix up the infamous details of Vincent’s life (the ear cut, the presumed suicide) and assume the yellow house to be a mental hospital when it is, in fact, a house with many rooms of which he rents four, in the hopes of creating a small artist colony. The show does not spell this out, and the ending is cumbersome and slow, almost too aware of its momentousness, but I love discovering my mistake. There is real hope in Vincent’s final re-start.
Kimber says in the program notes that she resonated with the struggle of pushing “through failure and disappointment and heartbreak.” There is no doubt that Vincent’s thick and layered sunflowers, his self-portrait and whatever else one can remember from books or a blockbuster exhibit, are iconic; we are even given disposable anti-Covid masks with printed yellow flowers at the show. My emotional experience is one of satisfaction, almost relaxation in knowing what is to come – the hero’s posthumous success. We exist and resist with him: “One day you will know better” – says Agostina to Vincent – “or the world will.” Kimber’s own struggles are implicitly vindicated in this play postponed more than once, but now produced and witnessed, in three dimensions.
I am bugged that to the yellow house is about the too often explored male misunderstood European genius, majestic and moving as its portrait by Paco Tolson is. I carry my Italian school baggage to it, with too many hours spent trying to learn the biographical details of male white artists only. This production expands on the narrowness of its set up, by presenting a cast of principal characters that is, except for Marco, entirely of color. This is specified in the script and will inform future productions too. Kimber also focuses on women who are dealing with survival and yearning for meaning. Agostina (the super luminous Deidrie Henry) describes her journey from model for famous painters to unsuccessful cafè owner to “ruined woman:”
If I am not the object of the art
If I am no longer a suitable object of the art
What do you think happens to a woman who cannot make a place for herself in this world
Van Gogh’s unlikely, post-mortem glory is still a product of his class and gender circumstance; women could not aspire to have a chosen vocation, or to even fail at it. At intermission I look up Vincent’s painting of Agostina. She is an object maybe more than ever on my illuminated phone, but then also so alive in Deidrie’s embodiment: “There is no place for me in this world but I went ahead and made one anyway,” she says. And she did, and she does.
It is moving to see UCSD students past and present on stage. Maybe because Marco is one of their teachers, I project an intergenerational tenderness in this group. These artists embody the complications of artistic lives on stage, while living actual artistic lives offstage. How does a freelance actor earn money when a production is postponed, how does a student actor trust they will find work after school? I let my mind wander into my own doubts about art, money and self-belief, an equation never-settled.