San Diego Fringe Festival 2017 presented another definite hit show with the cast of K. L. Brisby's historically researched script "The Yellow Hell of Vincent Van Gogh: a memoir of music and blood."
KL Brisby and Gingerlily Lowe are San Diego theater icons. I met them approximately 30 years ago when I was cast as Uncle Remus in a show with Brisby. It was a slightly controversial yet innovative theater story project. As I remember it, lead male actors pulled away from the show due to socio-cultural community "fall out."
Encouraged to try the role, I helped to create a cross generational/gender role. Uncle Remus-a male character based on the Joel Chandler Harris Uncle Remus folktales, is played as an aging slave almost 80 years old. The musical played to a packed house for children and adults every show.
As with my stage work at other theaters and with so many other nationally acclaimed San Diego directors who patiently taught stage acting's subtle shimmerings of character nuances versus broadly painted portrayals, I learned a lot about live theater from Kent and Gingerlily. It was a surprise to run into them at Fringe Festival's "Big Kitchen, Take 2" production.
Last time I remember talking to Kent was at the CD release for award winning poet Jim Moreno's Reversing the Erased, Exhuming the Expunged: we both composed music for the CD Reversing the erased, exhuming the expunged (Jim and I still perform live versions of the poem with soundscape at various venues large and small.
Kent, Gingerlily and I talked for several minutes and Kent invited me to see his new show "The Yellow Hell of Vincent Van Gogh" with music by Stu Shames and featuring actors William B.J. Robinson and Paul Araujo at the Fringe San Diego Art Institute. A few days later, I was sitting in the space with a standing room only crowd waiting in anticipation. I got one of the last tickets for the show that evening. It sold out.
The script's premise allows the audience to consider the time when Gauguin and Van Gogh were room mates in a small apartment in Paris, France. is part 2 of what will become a trilogy, the first play is about Paul Gauguin. Sorry readers, I tried to get Gingerlily to do a spoiler's alert reveal after the show, but she only confirmed that there would be third play- not the focus of the script.
Brisby looks for the best actors to play his characters. Sometimes his casting choices seem counter-intuitive until the actor sweeps audience away into Brisby's enticingly multi-layered storytelling.William B.J. Robinson, a trained actor, vocalist, and pianist does just that from the moment he takes stage to final bows as Van Gogh.
Robinson sings and also plays keyboards, bringing Stu Shames songs to life while musically interpreting Van Gogh's feelings when words would clutter. An apt pianist, Robinson has a gorgeous voice. His actor's timing is inviting, whether soloing with keyboard or doing stage business or interacting with Paul Araujo's diabolically whimsical Paul Gauguin.
Araujo fills the stage as actor and singer creating a roller coaster counterpoint to Robinson's Van Gogh. It is fun, emotionally intense, ensemble theater. Araujo also has solo songs. His Gauguin rocks out and sometimes croons while aptly accompaying himself on a lime green electric guitar. Araujo's duet work balances well with Robinson on electric piano.
The play's scenes range from the room mates' small apartment to bawdy brothels. Brisby's story line also explores the possibility of both Gauguin's and Van Gogh's tenuous grip on reality. A chilling climax, a scene near the end recounts the night when Van Gogh cut off his ear. Brisby's research presents Van Gogh's and Gauguin's memories of the event from two drastically different realities.
Despite distractions (for me) the sweltering heat in the theater, a standing room only crowd, and a small intimate stage (Brisby's choice) "The Yellow Hell of Vincent Van Gogh: a memoir of music and blood" spins a fascinating narrative
When the trilogy is completed, this trio of KL Brisby's plays could easily become a film.
See you at the Fringe!