Art. What is it? Why do some people love opera or ballet and others prefer a visit to the dentist? That was the question at the heart of a play performed at Wright Opera House in Ouray last week.
Theatergoers got a full plate of food-for-thought on a weekend when severe weather threatened to trump transcendent art; what they did not know, however, is that there was a story within the story. As it happens, the cast and director are all from Kansas City and, as members of the vibrant local artistic community, they are friends off-stage — friends portraying the often fickle and fragile nature of friendship in the face of a dispute over a work of art. But it could just as well be a difference of opinion over visual impact regulations in Ouray County.
When I visit a great art museum (which, I confess, isn't all that often), I usually see some paintings I'd like to have hanging above my fireplace and others I just don't get. For me, that's especially true of the whole spectrum of Abstract Expressionism from Cubism to Minimalism. People disagree about music and movies, too, of course — the rare exceptions for my generation being Elvis Presley, the Beatles and "The Graduate." (Okay, and "True Grit.")
The only Latin phrase I ever learned that stuck is de gustibus non est disputandum (there's no arguing over taste). And yet that's exactly what "Art" by Yasmina Reza is all about: an argument between friends over a painting. "Art" not only raises intriguing questions about the relationship between art and friendship but also challenges audiences to rethink what it means to have (and keep) an open mind in a diverse society on a small planet.
Can friendship and harmony transcend differences? Aren't some differences simply too important to ignore or smooth over? Is it possible for Denver Broncos fans and Dallas Cowboys fans to be friends? How about Republicans and Democrats? Christians and Muslims?
Despite the serious questions it raises, the play has a comical side. If it doesn't make you smile you probably don't get it — like my deer-in-the-headlights reaction to the "pure abstract" art of Wassily Kandinsky, for example. So when Serge buys a very expensive, very abstract Minimalist painting (white with some faint threads of "color") by a famous artist, Marc takes one look at it and thinks it's a joke. Or at least he tries to make a joke about it. Serge isn't amused.
What follows is a donnybrook most of us will recognize from personal experience. It starts over a painting and takes on a life of its own. Fights within families or between friends are often more intense, intractable and injurious than the average barroom brawl between beer-swilling strangers. Sometimes it's about money; sometimes it's about unrequited love; or maybe it's about the World Series at this time of the year. But a painting!
Why not? Marc thinks Serge is nuts to spend a lot of money on a painting that's basically a blank canvas. At least that's how HE sees it. And that's the key. Serge sees something in the painting Marc doesn't see. Perhaps that's what accounts for Marc's "unease." Perhaps that's why he's "unsettled" by it. Serge, on the other hand, doesn't understand why Marc can't see what he sees in the painting. Is Marc being willfully obtuse? Mean-spirited? Or simply honest?
Probe beneath the surface and the play becomes a foray into a Freudian boreal forest where the line between perception and reality is blurred and what's right or wrong depends on geography (where you're coming from) rather than theology (where you hope you're going). But that's about as much as I can say about the play in the space allotted here. Like all art, writing or reading about it is a poor substitute for experiencing it firsthand.
A word about the cast. The actors, John Rensenhouse, Greg Butell and Trevor French are well-known among the theater-going crowd in Kansas City (my other home base). Together they have a long list of stage credits, performing both on the local stage and in regional theaters around the country. As I mentioned, the actors and the director, Darren Sextro, are friends who were performing a play about art and friendship. There was also a family connection to Ouray. Many readers of this newspaper know Nancy Nixon. Nancy is a longtime resident of Ouray, of course, and a producer at the Wright Opera House. John Rensenhouse is Nancy's brother.
If you haven't ever attended an event at the Wright Opera House think about doing so in the near future. Tickets can be purchased at the new box office taking shape in the main lobby or online at www.thewrightoperahouse.org. Also, the opera house, celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, has launched the second phase of a capital campaign to renovate the facility. Keep that in mind when you're thinking about tax deductible donations…
Tom Magstadt writes and cooks in the log cabin of his dreams. He lives on a mountain in Ouray County and frequents Colorado Boy almost enough to qualify as a regular Visit Tom’s blog at http://open.salon.com/blog/dakotaki.