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Art
by Yasmina Reza
With Adaptation by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
August 6, 2021

Ben Ritchie, Stephen Peirick, Jeremy Goldmeier
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

In a time of increasing uncertainty and efforts to return to live theatre (both outside and inside), Stray Dog Theatre has adapted its usual performance setting in presenting a play that explores not only the subjective nature of art, but also the need for, and definitions of, friendship and personal relationships. Yesmina Reza’s Art (adapted by Christopher Hampton) is an incisive, occasionally witty, occasionally caustic character study of a comedy, looking not only at these issues but also exploring the influence of outside relationships on an individual’s personality view of oneself. At SDT, this somewhat talky play is given a great deal of energy by its excellent cast of three.

The story here is presented in an intriguing format, as the events play out in a  mostly linear fashion, while the three characters take turns narrating and sharing their personal thoughts with the audience. It begins as Marc (Stephen Peirick) recounts a visit to his friend Serge (Ben Ritchie), as Serge eagerly shows off his new “find” for his modern art collection–a painting by a celebrated artist. Marc’s reaction is not exactly pleasant, as he takes offense at his friend’s purchase of a basically white painting. Serge doesn’t take Marc’s reaction well, and Marc takes his case to their mutual friend Yvan (Jeremy Goldmeier), who is dealing with his own personal issues and just wants everyone to be happy. Yvan later visits with Serge and hears his side of the story. That’s just the beginning, as the initial conflict brings out–and reveals–more conflicts, between the three friends as well as with their romantic partners, family members, and more. 

This play is a lot more character-focused than plot-focused, giving the cast members excellent situations for expression, both dramatically and in a comedic sense. The comedy is somewhat caustic and biting, as well as ironic at times, and the characters can be hard to like at times (especially the domineering Marc). As such a character-centric work, it’s an ideal showcase for the actors, and all three performers shine here. Ritchie’s pretentious, particular Serge; Peirick’s selfish, control-focused Marc; and Goldmeier’s overwhelmed, would-be mediator Yvan are all strong characterizations, with Goldmeier standing out especially in a well-realized, at once humorous and sympathetic portrayal. The interplay between all three actors is a particular highlight, as well, with each gaining energy from the others and feeding the increasingly frantic progression of the proceedings.

Technically, the show does well in its new outdoor space, on the lawn next to SDT’s usual venue, the Tower Grove Abbey. A stage has been set up with folding chairs for the audience, with a good view of the minimal but effective set by Josh Smith, which is put to excellent use by director Gary F. Bell and the cast. There’s also impressive lighting by Tyler Duenow, as well as character-appropriate costumes by Bell. It all works well in an outdoor setting, in terms of being able to see and hear everything.

Art is a show with a whole lot of talking and not a lot of plot, but with fully-realized characters who provide all the focus for the comedy and the drama. It’s a thought-provoking exploration of relationships, thoughts and feelings, along with an exploration of the subjective nature of art. At Stray Dog Theatre, it sets the stage for some especially strong performances, and serves as a welcome return for this theatre company.

Stephen Peirick, Ben Ritchie
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Art outside at the Tower Grove Abbey until August 21, 2021

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Art
by Yasmina Reza
Directed by Wayne Salomon
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
April 17, 2015

Drew Battles, Larry Dell, John Pierson Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Drew Battles, Larry Dell, John Pierson
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

How subjective is beauty? What about the value of art? What happens when longtime friends disagree on these issues, and how does this conflict affect the friendship? These are several of the issues brought up in Yasmina Reza’s Art, which is currently onstage at St. Louis Actors’ Studio.  As is usual for STLAS, this is a memorable production, bringing together a very strong cast and production values to tell this emotionally charged comedy.

The story here is introduced by Marc (John Pierson), a curmudgeonly sort of guy who has something of a distrust for the modern, especially modern art. He’s highly skeptical, even personally offended, when his friend Serge (Drew Battles) purchases a ridiculously expensive painting by a famous artist. The problem is that the painting is white, as in it’s all white, although Serge insists there is more to it than that.  Also on the scene is their more ingratiating friend Yvan (Larry Dell), who tells each friend what he wants to hear and just wants everyone to get along. In the midst of this initial conflict, the play also injects issues of friendship jealousy and criticism of the friends’ relationships with the women in their lives, including Yvan’s upcoming wedding and the family conflicts it causes. Although the main argument is between Marc and Serge, the dynamic of all three men’s relationships with one another provides the tension of the play, and much of its comedy, as these guys argue about everything from the nature of great art to the value and importance of friendship itself.

This is a play in which there isn’t much of a plot, particularly. It’s the relationships that make the story, and therefore it requires strong actors to maintain the energy and carry the show. There are three very different men here, so it requires strong ensemble chemistry to make their relationships believable. Fortunately, the cast here is uniformly excellent, working together well and portaying a convincing combative friendship. Pierson as the gruff, contrary Marc spars well with Battles as the pretentious and nervous Serge, with both actors displaying a strong sense of presence. Dell as the harried, people-pleasing Yvan, who becomes something of a combination referee and punching bag for his two more assertive friends, gives a particularly winning performance, as well.

Technically, this production is strong as I’ve come to expect from STLAS, with one notable exception. On opening night, there was a sudden power outage toward the end of the play that stopped the show for a few minutes, although it was well-covered by the cast. Aside from that, everything else is impressive, most notably the set by Cristie Johnston, which recreates an upscale city apartment with rich detail. The costumes by Teresa Doggett appropriately suited the characters. Dalton Robison’s lighting and Wayne Salomon’s sound design also contributed well to the atmosphere of the production.

Aside from a little too much departure from the action in which the characters break the fourth wall and directly address the audience, this is a thought-provoking and highly entertaining play.  STLAS has brought together a strong cast and crew to close out their season well. There are many interesting issues dealt with here, but the real story is the relationships, and those are convincing and compelling.  It’s a work of art worth the investment.

John Pierson, Drew Battles Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

John Pierson, Drew Battles
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

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