Amarillo Little Theatre’s Adventure Space recently staged Yasmina Reza’s Art. Translated from the French by Christopher Hampton, the play has garnered a huge range of international awards.
The success of the play stems initially from two interrogative antipodes: What is art? What is friendship? The ensuing tension spawns a brouhaha which reveals major heretofore unfaced issues between the longtime friends.
The fulcrum of the play pivots on Serge’s (played by Brandon Graves) purchase of a work of art, which is nothing but a white canvas allegedly embellished with additional white pigment and diagonal striations for the exorbitant sum of 200K Francs. Serge seeks approval from his good friend Marc (Omar Nevarez), but receives only rejection and scorn for his choice. Marc is appalled that his friend would commit a double crime of egregious irrationality: call the white rectangle a work of art; spend a small fortune in its acquisition.
The disagreement in taste and priorities quickly escalates into the realm of betrayal. Marc is outraged that Serge has made such an impulsive commitment, without, it follows, consulting him. Serge, seeking validation from Marc, recoils from his attacks, wounded and hurt. Control issues are at play, big time.
But there is another issue, perennial and recurrent, that comes to the fore and runs on a parallel track with the dynamics of personality. It is the question of what is art and is Serge’s purchase even art, much less great art.
This issue isn’t plot conjuring on Yazmina Reza’s part. The work of the Polish-Ukrainian Russian avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich launched this debate with his White on White Suprematist series in post-revolutionary Russia.
This gauntlet would later be picked up by Robert Ryman, whose white rectangle was famously featured on 60 Minutes, But is it Art? by Morley Safer. This episode became one of the most watched in program history.
So, the debate has validity and relevance. But this tension over aesthetics reveals entrenched perspectives as to what constitutes friendship and its boundaries. Serge and Marc agree to the arbitration of a third friend Yvan, (played by Harrison Blount)who, as a waffling placater, only makes matters worse as he takes friendly fire from each side.
A sequence of burned bridges lead all three to declare a cease-fire, and symbolically pass around a bowl of olives.
The play is a veritable smorgasbord of the vicissitudes of human interaction. Marc and Serge, successful in the world and rooted in their convictions, need validation from each other and feel threatened by the others divergent perceptions. And fragile, about-to-be-married Yvan reveals he is a victim of depression, and just wants everyone to get along as he wallows in a self-induced pathos.
All three actors create a credible developmental arc. The dialogue is quick-paced, but, following the expert direction of Alan Shankles, the principals give one another space, and no lines were stepped on.
The set was minimalist, and certainly did not detract from the dynamics between the characters.
And Art, typical of great works of art, raises more questions than answers, leaving the audience to resolve the limits of toleration in friendship, and, just as important to some, what constitutes art.
Such celebrations of ambiguity characterize the quality theatre we enjoy here in Amarillo. Which is why we unambiguously state:
Keep Amarillo Artsy!
Keep Austin Weird!
Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!