Opinions contrast over white-on-white in ‘Art’

Opinions contrast over white-on-white in ‘Art’

Jay Pyette

June 12, 2008, by Joe Nickell, Missoulian

The Montana Actors’ Theatre presents Yasmina Reza’s “Art” in three performances at the Crystal Theatre, June 12, 13, and 14. Performances begin at 8 p.m. (doors open at 7:30). Tickets are $15, or $25 per couple; run time of the play is approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission. “Art” contains language not suitable for all audiences.

There is nothing black and white about a white-on-white painting. Just ask Serge and Marc, two longtime friends who find themselves locked in a bitter argument about the merits of a modernist painting that Serge recently purchased. Their debate, at once personal and timelessly familiar, fans the flames of drama and humor in “Art,” Yasmina Reza’s modern classic of the stage.

Debuted in Paris in 1994, “Art” has since been translated into 20 languages, and has enjoyed successful runs on Broadway and around the world.

It’s a play that lends itself well to small-scale productions, yet which addresses big issues, ranging from personal loyalty and honor, to the role of art in modern society. Requiring only three actors and one set, the one-act play unfolds more like a Socratic dialogue than a typical drama.

But in the banter among the characters – three old friends who have grown increasingly estranged – Reza managed to pack so many layers of background and conflict that the play comes off as gripping as a Hitchcock mystery.

The play unfolds during an evening in which Serge, Yvan and Marc gather for what was supposed to be a pleasant dinner. Yvan and Marc learn that Serge has purchased an expensive painting, a large work consisting of nothing other than white paint on a white canvas. Marc is stunned – not simply because he doesn’t like the painting, but because he sees the purchase as an affront to the values he believed the friends shared. Yvan, meanwhile, is too consumed by doubt over his upcoming wedding to be of much help – until he is dragged, unwittingly, into what soon becomes a bitter debate that threatens to end the trio’s friendship.

That the play is known as a comedy is perhaps the best indication of its subtle wonders.

“It’s hilarious – which is odd to say, since it’s really about the demise of this 30-year relationship,” said Missoula actor Chris Torma. “It’s tragic in a way; these characters definitely have a lot of work to do on their relationship after this show is over.”

Tonight, Torma and two other actors will take the stage of the Crystal Theatre in Missoula to perform Reza’s play. The production, which runs only three nights, is the first local staging by the Montana Actors’ Theatre, a professional company based in Havre. The resident theater company at MSU-Northern, the Montana Actors’ Theatre has been producing plays along the Hi-Line for 15 years; the company produces an average of four mainstage shows a year in Havre, along with other educational projects.

Torma said he first became acquainted with the company when he worked with actor Grant Olson, one of the principals with the Montana Actors’ Theatre, in a Montana Rep Missoula production of “Good Thing” back in the spring of 2007.

“Since working with Grant, I’ve seen several of their productions, and I’ve been quite impressed,” said Torma. “I’m such a fan of ensemble theatre, and that’s really what they’re about; so it’s a good fit.”

Montana Actors’ Theatre is also seeking to expand its role and visibility in the broader Montana theater community; hence this Missoula production.

“They have a will to grow, which I really admire,” said Torma. “And this is such a perfect play to grow with; it’s an actor’s dream to play in (“Art”) because the characters are all so invested in everything they do, and they’re losing something important. It’s kind of like the ‘I Love Lucy’ show: Lucy is so invested in everything she does and yet she loses herself in every show.”

Hopefully, through something lost, Missoula will also gain.

“I think there’s a great opportunity here for this company to become an important part of Missoula theater, and I think this play is a great vehicle to start making that happen,” said Torma.

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