Review: Soulpepper Presents ‘Art’

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Paul Love, Associate Theatre Columnist, Toronto

Soulpepper is tackling French playwright Yasmina Reza’s 1994 play, ‘Art’, which was translated by Christopher Hampton and has been very successful in its productions in London’s West End, on Broadway, and elsewhere.

Serge (Diego Matamoros), Marc (Oliver Dennis), and Yvan (Huse Madhavji) have been friends for 15 years. When Serge buys a very expensive painting that is, essentially, a white canvas with white diagonal lines, Marc is outraged. He can’t understand why his friend would waste so much money on such nonsense. Serge is annoyed that Marc would be callous about the purchase since he has no interest in, or knowledge of, modern art. Yvan, who is the least assertive of the three and always tries to play peacemaker with the other two, and who is distracted by the troubled preparations for his approaching wedding, tries to make everybody happy by telling Serge he likes the painting and joking with Marc about how silly it is. This seemingly minor issue of the painting purchase escalates and begins to tug at the very fabric of this once-strong friendship.

The action takes place in each of the three friends’ apartments, in a series of short, two-hander scenes, culminating in a final gathering of all three. Because so much of the characters’ reactions to each other exists in what they don’t say, there are several moments where the action freezes, the lights switch to a spotlight on one of the characters, and he shares his thoughts in that moment with the audience, often to hilarious effect.

All three actors give great performances throughout. They all excel at finding many different levels of energy, volume, and aggression for their characters, creating conversations and arguments that are very realistic and instantly relatable. As Marc, Mr. Dennis does a marvellous job of saying so much with mere facial expression and body language. His initial, silent and tortured reaction to the painting at the top of the show is comedic gold. Mr. Matamoros, with his portrayal of Serge, adeptly walks a fine line between intelligence and pretentiousness. If he comes off as too much of a snob, Serge loses the audience’s sympathy. Mr. Matamoros balances the pretentious side by giving Serge a gregarious warmth that is found in his performance, not in the dialogue. Mr. Madhavji is great as Yvan, presenting him as a likeable, high-strung man who dissolves into a simpering milquetoast when walled in by the demands and accusations of his more assertive friends. His facial reactions and body language during tense moments are top-notch, and his big speech about the disastrous preparations for his wedding is nicely layered and multi-paced, making it one of the best moments of the show.

Director Philip Akin makes full use of Gillian Gallow’s striking black and white set (which is gorgeously lit by Bonnie Beecher), by having his cast move about the space freely and constantly. This effectively punctuates the building sense of tension and unease between the trio. Since Reza’s dialogue never explicitly suggests when the play takes place, Costume Designer Dana Osborne smartly dresses the cast in clothes that are not specific to any particular time. Her choice to have all three characters wearing a mixture of blues, browns, and greys contrasts nicely with the set while also serving as a reminder that a well-built connection exists between these men.

This production doesn’t attempt any bold choices or unusual surprises, but when you’re presenting a three-hander that revolves around a blank, white square, perhaps simplicity is the way to go.

Photo of (L-R) Diego Matamoros, Oliver Dennis, and Huse Madhavji provided by Dahlia Katz.

Show Details

The show is being staged until September 1, 2018 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, at 50 Tank House Lane in Toronto’s beautiful Distillery District.

Showtimes are at 7:30 pm Tuesday to Saturday with 1:30 pm matinees on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays.

The show is approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.

More details are available at www.soulpepper.ca.