By Cherylyn Smith
The innovative theater company Curtain 5, under the direction of Jerry Palladino, presented ART, by Yasmina Reza, at the Fresno Art Museum in late October.
A superlative cast was featured in this play. The interaction between the quintessential professional actor, tony sanders (all lower case), and a local rising star, Mathew Vargas, was something to behold. Each brings distinct elements to their characters, Marc and Serge. Together, they advanced the playwright’s fascination with the tragi-comic dynamics of human relationships that simultaneously draw these characters closer while pulling them apart. Both characters are well established professionals who share a deep friendship, despite their strikingly different personalities. Conflict enters the play abruptly, in the first act, when they clash over their opinions of a painting for which Serge paid an exorbitant amount.
The painting had a strong presence in the play. It was done on a white canvas and contained three faint white diagonal lines, streaking across the surface in a blurred symmetry. Is it art or is it worthless? This central question persisted to the point that it could sometimes be a distraction. The painting itself is an enigma—mysterious, provocative, hypnotic and often laughable.
Marc, a practical, down-to-earth engineer, deems the painting worthless and calls it “shit,” without hesitation. Serge is delighted with his purchase. As a dermatologist, lodged in aesthetics, he is self-absorbed, while utterly fascinated by mystery and all things ineffable. Serge is humiliated by Marc and made to look ridiculous for relishing his purchase. Yet, he is also foiled by Marc, whose crude attacks awaken sympathy among the audience for Serge. Could it be that Serge understands something about the work that Marc misses? Is Marc lacking sophistication, or is Serge simply delusionary? These questions linger in our minds throughout the play, impelling us to periodically scan the painting for answers.
A mutual friend, Ivan (played by the versatile actor, Jason Andrew), is desperate to see a resolution to the two friends’ conflict. He is a lightweight—an innocent victim drawn into the fray. As such, he mirrors the audience, prompting us to laugh at him and at ourselves. Nevertheless, he sees “color” in the painting—something beyond the visible—just as truth lies beneath the surface and well beyond the rational in this play.
Reza’s works focus on oppositional tensions building between characters as they evoke introvert versus extrovert, pragmatist versus aesthetician, seriousness versus absurdity, and man of thought versus man of action, etc. In this play, the two characters are intensely driven as they traverse between these polarities. These characters both destroy and re-create relationships, while morphing in and out of each other’s persona—heady stuff, to be sure, but always imbued with a touch of the absurd. Likewise, Vargas’ interpretation of Serge is reminiscent of the effete Stan from Laurel and Hardy, which plays off of Marc’s impatient blustering quite well, adding undertones of comic relief to the duo’s hostile interplay.
While these two friends undergo mutual transformations, fresh views of the power of art emerge. Marc, who was staunchly grounded, ends up transcending that stance, as he unlocks an all-engrossing, poetic sensitivity to the painting. Meanwhile, Serge opens up to a playful spontaneity as he relinquishes his rigid defense of it. As a result, the two reunite on higher ground. For the characters and audience alike, enduring the conflicts in this play could be exhausting, but the resolution was truly exhilarating.
As the deliriously uplifting ending demonstrates, to interact with art is the only way to know its true value. You have to see the play to catch the innuendo in my word-choice of “interacting” with art. Let’s just say, I am being tongue-in-cheek.
Cherylyn Smith is a retired educator, having served as a bilingual adviser in the Multilingual/Multicultural Department of Education for the Fresno Unified School District. She currently teaches part-time at Fresno City College. She organizes public discussions on critical issues affecting the Central Valley, such as water, immigration, fracking, toxic dumps and high-speed rail. She has interviewed parties to the Prop 1A lawsuit on KFCF 88.1 FM. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.