St. Thomas Players Production of Yasmina Reza's Art

for The Salisbury Post

Salisbury has always been a good theatre town. I know there’s a rich history dating back to the previous century. And I know I’ve missed a few in my time (almost five and a half decades).

But it seems like Salisbury theatre has made some strides in recent years that sets it apart.

We don’t just have a community theatre offering shows every two months on a fairly big stage to a fairly big house.

We’ve also got a full season at Catawba, one of the finer college theatre programs in the state, if not the country.

And we have smaller companies, and some professional actors who live and perform here, offering a rich menu of quality theatre on a frequent basis.

I’m pretty sure that’s not normal for a town this size. I’m pretty sure it’s remarkable.

Just two weeks ago, Joe Falocco — a consummate actor with a Salisbury address — presented Shakespeare’s Villains at Lee Street Theatre. It was delightful, smart, and incredibly funny.

A couple of weeks before that, St. Thomas Players gave us a thoroughly engaging production of Rabbit Hole.

Now, as it does each year, St. Thomas Players knocks out another summer with another one-two drama punch, following Rabbit Hole with an excellent production of Yasmina Reza’s Art, currently on view at Catawba’s Florence Busby Corriher Theatre.

The acting here is very, very good — but it doesn’t get in the way of a play that’s quite fascinating.

Near the end of Art, Yvan, the character who gets in the middle of his friend’s argument, sums up the play we’ve just seen when he says something close to this: ‘Nothing beautiful has ever been created as a result of rational argument.’

Good point, but the larger point is that while isolated statements in an argument can seem rational, the argument as a whole is absurd.

Just as arguments for isolated bits of a war can sometimes make sense, even though the war as a whole is absurd.

The war in Iraq began for one reason and continued on for a variety of entirely different reasons. Same for Afghanistan — and other conflicts between nations, races, municipalities, friends, people, families.

In the moment, there’s always somebody who can explain it like a champion. And then there’s always history, wherein the absurdity rises to the surface.

People still debate what really started the Cvil War.

This is the idea that gets distilled into Art, a very tight play that is not absurd, as a play, but instead is a play about absurdity.

We’re talking about a guy who attacks his friend for buying a painting that’s simply blank — white paint on a canvas.

It sets off a barrage of complicated, personal, hurtful argument, wherein the absurdity becomes as stark as the white painting that begins the ordeal.

As the play unfolds, the characters get heated about ideas, and the judgmentalism escalates. Sometimes it gets so complicated that I can’t follow the argument. I don’t know exactly what they’re talking about, but I know exactly what they’re saying and what they mean — and I’m pretty sure that’s the point.

This big mess doesn’t seem to challenge the actors. They don’t miss a beat as they whip through each other at a brisk pace. They’re exceptionally well prepared, and they seem to understand the nuance of each and every verbal dagger they throw.

Craig Kolkebeck directs the play and acts. He plays Serge, a dermatologist who buys a white painting and knows how to get under his friend’s skin.

Kolkebeck possesses the gift of naturalness. He’s always immersed in the play itself, never on a stage or aware of an audience.

I first heard about Art, the play, in the 90’s, over a glass of wine, from Bob Paolino, who had seen it in New York. We were talking about theatre and he said “I like Art.” This sounded like a weird thing to say, and I probably said something like “I do too.”

Bob straightened me out.

“The play, Art,” Bob said.

Soon after, I read it and discovered that I liked Art too. I’m glad I got a chance to see it, and I’m delighted I got to see Bob’s exuberant, winning performance in it. He plays Marc, the friend who instigates the argument when he notices that, like The Emperor Who Has no Clothes, the painting has no color.

One mustn’t play favorites with an ensemble cast of three that thoroughly clicks, but the manic moment of the evening obviously belongs to Anthony Liguori. He plays Yvan, the neurotic scapegoat, whose monologue about his wedding invitations provides the comic peak and is a sheer delight to watch. As long as it is (and it’s a long monologue), I’m sure everyone in the audience would have gladly granted him another five minutes.

The set is tasteful, white, and stark — and it’s also for sale. Upon leaving the theatre at the play’s conclusion the audience is invited to bid on the pieces in a silent auction.

This is a great show. I’m sure the army of volunteers involved in the production are proud of their work, and they should be.

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