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Art For Art’s Sake: At APT, big painting causes bigger uproar

At APT, big painting causes bigger uproar by Becca Martin-Brown | June 12, 2022 at 1:00 a.m.
The question in the APT production of “Art” is whether a friendship survives a disagreement over what makes art art. (Courtesy Photo/Chad Wigington for APT)

Art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. It's not so complicated if one among a group of friends loves Picasso, another prefers Asher Durand, and another chooses Frederic Remington. It's easy to see the appeal of the work, even if it's not your cup of artistic tea.

But what happens when one of three friends buys a large -- and expensive -- painting that the others think is not only not beautiful but not even art?

That's the premise for Yasmina Reza's comedy "Art," which made its first splash in the mid-1990s, winning the 1996 Olivier Award for Best Comedy and the 1998 Tony Award for Best Play. It opens June 17 at Arkansas Public Theatre in Rogers.

Translated by Christopher Hampton, the play revolves around Serge (Jay Mashburn), who flexes his collector's muscles to buy a five-by-four-foot painting that is all white with white diagonal lines. To his friend Marc (Eric Bolin), who has dabbled more in the art world, the painting is a joke. But Serge insists Marc doesn't have the proper expertise to judge the work. Enter their third friend Ivan (Brandon Devine), who just wants to make peace. And hilarity -- and drama -- ensue.

"'Art' belongs to a tradition that once flourished on Broadway but is seldom represented there these days: the sleek, pleasant comedy of manners with an intellectual veneer that allows audiences to relax at the theater without feeling they're wasting time," wrote critic Ben Brantley in the New York Times in March 1998. "Indeed, the mirth to be mined from mounting friction among old friends is as ancient as commedia dell'arte and an abiding staple of American sitcoms.

"As the exchange of recriminations becomes increasingly violent, the three men are forced to wonder if they ever had anything in common," Brantley went on. "That idea creates a prospect that is, of course, unbearably lonely. [And] this underpinning of sadness gives 'Art' a certain emotional gravity."

"'Art' explores the dynamic nature of friendship for three male friends over the course of 15 years," says Mashburn, who portrays Serge. "They discover that in order to sustain their friendship, they must be willing to respect the evolving differences in each other."

"One of the most fascinating things about the play is that it involves three men, and only three men, but was written by a woman," adds Bolin. "The playwright truly nailed the male psyche, ego and id and all. ... It's a hilarious and poignant look at men and how they handle their friendships. We, they, are mean to one another. Sometimes on purpose. Sometimes on accident. Two of these characters are in a near-constant game of one-upsmanship, something I'm familiar with in reality with some of my best friends.

"The game-playing ultimately goes too far, which, if you've ever had such a relationship, isn't really a surprise," Bolin continues. "We, men, often struggle to speak honestly about our emotions. It manifests itself as hostility sometimes, and I think the play showcases that wonderfully."

"I think the play is a classic example of how friendships are like any relationship, whether it be family, romantic, platonic, etc.," says Devine. "There are good days, and there are bad days. A true friendship is able to get through the bad days just like they are able to enjoy the good days."

"Friendship is ever evolving," agrees director Brenda Mashburn Nemec. "If we don't grow and mature with our friends, the relationships can become lifeless and static. Our friends are not all exactly like we are, and we have to learn to appreciate these differences. We don't always have to agree, but we need to continue to love each other."

Of course, the play also considers what makes art art.

"The play to me shows that art will forever be a different journey within each person," says Devine.

"Art is a funny word. It means different things to different people and how we apply our principles to it, I think, ultimately, says more about us than the piece itself," agrees Bolin. "The play is really about that at its core."

"I was struck by the premise of the play and how a seemingly simple artistic expression caused such seismic ripples among the three characters," says Kinya Christian, a prominent Rogers artist who created the painting for the play and also put together the exhibition to go with it in the Zephyr Blevins Gallery at APT. The prompt for the participating artists was "what is white?" and Christian says "the commentary from each artist is what I am most interested to share. I'd encourage people to view the gallery before and after the play. The entire experience is ripe for conversation!"

  photo  Eric Bolin, Jay Mashburn and Brandon Devine (front to back) consider the painting that has caused a rift in their characters’ friendship in the Arkansas Public Theatre production of “Art.” (Courtesy Photo/Chad Wigington for APT)
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