VINCENT IN BRIXTON at the Apple Tree Theatre

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vincent logo


By Nicholas Wright
Kurt Johns, Director
Bill Walters , Stage Manager A.E.A.
Dave Fergurson, Lighting/Props Designer
Keith Pitts, Set/Props Designer
Patti Roeder, Costume Designer
Rob Steel, Sound Designer

February 9 - March 13, 2005



Vincent in Brixton is a coming-of-age play loosely based on VanGogh's early years in London in 1873. A brash young Dutchman, working for a London Branch of an international firm of art dealers, Vincent rents a room in the house of an English widow. Three years later, he returns to Europe on the first step of a journey which will end in breakdown. Vincent in Brixton is about the transforming effect of love, sex and artistic adventure on unformed talent. It traces the birth of a genius.

In 2003, Vincent in Brixton won Britain's Olivier Award for best new play, and a Tony Award nomination for best play on Broadway.

The Cast

Lisa Dodson (Ursula) most recently appeared as The Ghost of Christmas Past and Mrs. Crachit in her third season of The Goodman Theater's A Christmas Carol, and also as Bessie in The Rose Tattoo at the Goodman. At Chicago Shakespeare Theatre she appeared in King John, for which she received the 2004 Joseph Jefferson Award Nomination for her performance as Constance, and Titania/Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night's Dream. She has performed leading roles in over 20 Chicago Shakespeare productions. Favorites include Goneril in King Lear, Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra, Olivia in Twelfth Night, Emilia in Othello, Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, and Hermione in The Winter's Tale. Other credits include The Time of Your Life at Steppenwolf Theatre, Kindertransport at Apple Tree Theatre, Tartuffe and Fair Ladies at a Game of Poem Cards at The Court Theatre, Broken Glass, Messiah and After the Fall at the National Jewish Theatre, Lost in Yonkers at The Royal George Theatre, and Hamlet at Wisdom Bridge Theatre. She also performs with the Chicago Symphony Singers and can be heard on WBEZ Stories on Stage. Television credits include Early Edition, Unsolved Mysteries, Jack and Mike and Lady Blue. Film credits include The Color of Money, Just Visiting, Barefoot to Jerusalem, and the Miramax/Project Greenlight film Stolen Summer, as well as the HBO series on the making of the film, Project Greenlight. Ms. Dodson has earned seven Joseph Jefferson Award nominations for her work in Chicago theatre.

Erica Elam (Eugenie) is a graduate of the Second City Conservatory Program and the University of Georgia. Recent credits include Winesburg, OH (About Face/Steppenwolf Theatre and NAMT Festival), Abingdon Square (Piven Theatre) and Flanagan's Wake, The Baritones, and Sex in the Suburbs (Noble Fool Theatre). She has also performed with various sketch and improv groups including the musical improv group, Jazz Hands Across America.

Mattie Hawkinson (Anna) is delighted to be working at Apple Tree Theatre for the first time. She most recently appeared in the premiere of Hanging Fire at Victory Gardens Theatre. Other credits include I Never Sang for My Father at Steppenwolf Theatre, A Little Night Music and A Winter's Tale at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, The Importance of Being Earnest at First Folio Shakespeare, and A Boston Marriage at Roadwords Productions, for which she received an After Dark Award. Mattie is a graduate of Northwestern University and The London Academy of Theatre.

Gregory Isaac (Sam) is pleased to be making his debut with Apple Tree. Since moving to Chicago from Atlanta several years ago, he has been fortunate to work with The Goodman, Chicago Shakespeare, About Face Theatre, Theatre at the Center, Shakespeare on the Green and The Writers' Theatre. He has also had good times regionally with places like The Alliance Theatre, The Georgia Shakespeare Festival, The Shakespeare Festival of Dallas, The Jewish Theatre of the South, Soul-stice Repertory, The New American Shakespeare Tavern and Hope Summer Repertory. He is grateful for every day spent treading these boards in this life.

Christopher McLinden (Vincent) is happy to be making his Apple Tree Theatre debut. He recently appeared as Treplev in Seagull at Writer's Theatre. Other Chicago credits include Lysander in A Midsummer Night's Dream at First Folio Shakespeare, Lyngstrand in Lady From the Sea with Greasy Joan& Co., and Nicky in The Vortex with Boxer Rebellion Ensemble. He will also be appearing in the upcoming independent film 5-25-77. Christopher would especially like to thank his brother for being the Theo to his Vincent.

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Chicagocritic.com reviews
Pioneer Press review
Chicago Sun-Times review
Chicago Tribune review
Chicago Reader review
Daily Herald review
Gay Chicago Magazine review

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Highlights from the chicagocritic.com reviews by Tom Williams and Brandon Hayes

Apple Tree Theatre's selection of Nicholas Wright's award winning 2003  play, Vincent in Brixton, was a wise choice. Featuring expertly written characters sketches and a coming of age theme, the play gives us a glimpse of the early Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) before the maddening mental illness over took him. Based on know facts of Vincent's early days when he worked for an art dealer in London and letters he wrote to his family, Vincent in Brixton is complex work filled with subtlety that is part character profile of the troubled genius, part psychological drama dealing with depression, loneliness and emotional isolation that is as much Ursula Loyer's story as Vincent's .

The play covers the twenty year old Van Gogh as he journeys to London (1873-76) as an art dealer. Playwright Nicholas Wright refers to it as a “fabulation,” a logical extension of documented reality. Vincent, played with amazing subdued emotions by the talented Christopher McLinden, first comes across as a brash, blunt Dutch boy more interested in Eugenie than selling for his art dealer employer. Early on we sense the chemistry between Vincent and Ursula Loyer as them seems to be on a higher plain of communication. Ursula is played magnificently with richly textured layers of suppressed emotions by the extraordinary Lisa Dodson .

The sparks fly between the disarmingly charming Vincent that McLinden renders and the black-dressed middle aged woman that Dodson portrays.

The liberal English household features a plausible story where Eugenie's (Erica Elam), Ursula's daughter, is having an affair with the house painter, Sam (steady work from Gregory Issac). Vincent's London boarding house features a terrific set (designed by Keith Pitts) that has a Tudor wood motif with a large Victorian wood-burning stove, sink and adorned by a large mahogany table that dwarfs the stage. Kitchens seem to be the hub of a household and this one fits nicely.

Vincent in Brixton is a psychological love story that is really more of Ursula's play than Van Gogh's. Lisa Dodson commands the stage and her malaise and melancholy haunts our thoughts as we quietly cheer for her and Vincent to connect. Vincent's caption beneath his nude sketch of Ursula tells her that “as long as she loves another and is capable of being loved, she'll never be an old woman.” Ursula teaches Vincent about sex that is a necessary catalyst toward artistic awakening. Vincent awakens Ursula from her isolation as he shows her that she is still desirable.

Vincent in Brixton is a seamlessly smooth play featuring two powerful personalities that engages us from the start. Christopher McLinden's boyish charm and Lisa Dodson's graceful elegance produce a dynamic connection.This is a smart show beautifully directed with a strong cast. Don't miss it.

Highly Recommended

Romanticizing the life of artists (from Caravaggio to Artemisia Gentilesch i to Jackson Pollock) is a risky undertaking.  Attempting to explain the art of the Western canon through quirks of biography is often reductionist and rarely stimulating. Luckily, the Van Gogh we know, and the idea of him we bring with us to the theatre, is hardly present.  There are tantalizing moments of reference to the art that would come much later (a flower blossom border in the house's kitchen recalls Van Gogh's 1890 painting, Almond Blossoms and his boots become the study for sketches…a subject explored on canvas in 1887 and 1888). But generally, the early artistic process of the man who would become Van Gogh is left offstage.

Onstage is the arc of a May/December love affair between the coltish young Vincent (perpetually ruddy-cheeked Christopher McLinden ) and the progressive, older Ursula (Lisa Dodson). From the moment the two step onstage, the actors convey the uncanny connection between these two unconventional people. Dodson's Ursula is warmth and charity mantled in widow's black and suppressing a deep and abiding depression.  McLinden's Vincent, on the other hand is a naïve but “plain spoken Dutchman,” little more than a child looking for companionship in a new city.

Although young Mr. Vincent's blunt manner and almost instant declaration of love for her daughter concern Ursula, she lets the young man rent a room on the condition that he will never speak of his love for her daughter.  The daughter, Eugenie (Erica Elam) is in love with the other lodger in the house, Sam (Gregory Isaac), a workingman and aspiring artist.

The arrival of Vincent's sister, Anna (Mattie Hawkinson) in the second act brings with it the smack of what we today would call Victorian prudery, but which, in 1873, was simple propriety.  Anna's disapproval of all the inhabitants of the house in Brixton draws new clouds over Vincent and Ursula, who is battling what we today would recognize as clinical depression.  Dodson's portrayal of the bright joys and sudden darknesses of such a depression is uncanny.

The work here done by the entire cast, but particularly the two leads in concert with director, Kurt Johns, is stellar.  The performances are nuanced and convincing without being sentimental.  The set design is meticulous. The lighting design is evocative.

Vincent in Brixton is informed by the celebrity of Van Gogh.  Part of the drama hinges on the audience's interest in one of the most popular European artists to ever live.  Happily, the play does not slavishly adhere to a cult of Van Gogh to delve into the deeper drama of an intensely complicated relationship.


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Highlights from the Pioneer Press review by Robert Loerzel

Just as "Shakespeare in Love" and "The Girl With a Pearl Earring" presented imaginary stories about real historical artists, "Vincent in Brixton" speculates on an episode during Vincent Van Gogh's early years.

As told in Nicholas Wright's play, directed by Kurt Johns at Apple Tree Theatre, Van Gogh began finding his way toward his distinctive artistic style during the time he spent as a young man at a London boarding house in 1873. He really did go to England to work for an art dealer, but whether he fell in love with an older woman and received critical lessons on art and life is another matter.

Wright's play is not persuasive as history, but the interactions among its characters are interesting to watch. The script and this production have a good sense of humor, as well as some tender moments and vivid confrontations. The play is flawed, but this is a good production, with a nice set by Keith Pitts and a fine cast of actors.

After making a strong impression last year as Treplev in Writers' Theatre's production of "The Seagull," Christopher McLinden plays another troubled young artist, taking on the title character of "Vincent in Brixton." As portrayed by McLinden, Vincent is gawky and prone to making clumsy pronouncements in his Dutch accent. The fact that he's a foreigner doesn't entirely explain his difficulties in dealing with other people. McLinden's odd mannerisms provide several laughs, but you can also sense a real person behind all the quirks.

The impulsive Vincent initially falls in love with Eugenie (the charming Erica Elam), the young daughter of the woman who owns the boarding house, Ursula (Lisa Dodson). Vincent is blind to the somewhat obvious fact that Eugenie's in love with the other boarder, Sam (Gregory Isaac, who's very convincing and humorous as a working-class Englishman).

Vincent instead finds himself doting on the older Ursula, who's still wearing black to mourn her husband's death 15 years earlier. Dodson doesn't overplay her character's potentially maudlin qualities, making her a down-to-earth woman with an undercurrent of sorrow.

After Vincent and Ursula awkwardly declare their love for each other, Vincent's meddlesome sister Anna shows up to find out what he's up to. Mattie Hawkinson is appropriately annoying as Anna, exasperating everyone else on stage.

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Highlights from the Sun-Times review by Hedy Weiss

Inspired by suggestive if not entirely verifiable events that occurred from 1873 to 1876, Wright chronicles a brief but crucial May-December romance between Van Gogh (Christopher McLinden) and his landlady Ursula Loyer (a smart, sensual Lisa Dodson).

At the age of 20, Vincent moved to Brixton in South London to work for Goupil & Co., an art dealership with branches in several European cities. Ursula was a middle-aged widow whose husband died young, leaving her with a daughter, Eugenie (Erica Elam, all brilliant energy), who eventually joined her as a teacher in the prep school she operated out of her home. A highly intelligent and capable woman, Ursula suffered from deep depressions, but clearly it was the lack of passion in her life that undermined her.

When Vincent arrives on her doorstep he feels instantly at home; the rustic brown kitchen in which the play unfolds (Keith Pitts' set design is a marvel of authenticity) no doubt reminds him of the "brown pubs" of his native Holland. And if at first he is drawn to Eugenie, who is already in love with Sam (the most likable Gregory Isaac) -- a working class fellow who dreams of attending art school -- he quickly realizes that the true affinity of souls (and bodies) is the one that exists between him and Ursula.

Their love affair is a brief but life-altering interlude, and perhaps because of the very nature of this relationship, Wright's play leaves you with a sense of incompleteness. In fact, this abrupt ending might be the only true one.

Kurt Johns, a Chicago-bred actor-turned-producer and fledgling director, has gathered a fine cast.

It is McLinden who makes this a must-see show. This young actor, seen earlier this season in the Writers' Theatre's "Seagull," has a face any painter would want to draw, and his reddish hair makes him a natural as Van Gogh. But it is his rare talent for living onstage in a way that is both utterly true and hugely dynamic -- for combining a raw energy and a sophisticated intelligence -- that is the real key to his portrayal. An added bolt of electricity comes with the arrival of Vincent's younger sister, Anna (Mattie Hawkinson, one of the city's most gifted young actresses), whose Dutch sense of order and propriety clash head-on with the Loyers' bohemianism.


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Highlights from the Chicago Tribune review by Chris Jones

The appeal of Nicholas Wright's "Vincent in Brixton" rests on an intriguing aesthetic question. Does the ordinary early life of a famous person become inherently interesting just because the person turned out to be a genius later in life?

It should be noted that this play has been exceptionally well produced by the always-reliable Apple Tree Theatre. I saw the show in its Broadway production in 2003 (intriguingly, it featured Liesel Matthews, of Pritzker family fame) and not only is the talky piece better served by Apple Tree's more intimate auditorium, but Kurt Johns' production is rather smarter and considerably more truthful.

The cast has a charming blend of neophytes and highly experienced local players. Lisa Dodson, an accomplished Shakespearean, gives a lot of emotional weight to van Gogh's lover, Ursula, without sacrificing the requisite wit and irony.

And while the vulnerable newcomer Christopher McLinden has a way to go as the famous painter, he's very much on the right track of vulnerability. There's also strong support from the rest of the cast: the appropriately irritating Mattie Hawkinson as van Gogh's sister; the guileless Erica Elam as the daughter of the house; and Gregory Isaac as a housepainter dreaming of becoming an artist.

The show is well-paced, right-headed and credible within the British milieu
. Rich and detailed, the realistic setting from Keith Pitts serves the work exceptionally well.

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Highlights from the Chicago Reader review by Nick Green

The dank kitchen setting and pivotal thunderstorm seem allusions to Wuthering Heights , and references to Dickens and George Eliot abound in his literate script. But suspension of disbelief is a must given the torrid affair Wright posits between van Gogh and his boardinghouse proprietor. The sexual mores here are more in keeping with a Harlequin romance than a Victorian novel; still, kudos to Wright for portraying a May-December relationship that isn't rooted in oedipal perversion. Director Kurt Johns shows a keen eye for blocking, and his staging has a sweeping, cinematic feel that underscores Wright's attempts to frame his play as a populist love story for the ages. It should be the feel-good hit of the winter--and I mean this without cynicism. Bring plenty of tissues.

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Highlights from the Daily Herald review by Barbara Vitello

The well-acted production that opened this week at Apple Tree Theatre benefits from sincere, perceptive performances, thoughtful direction from Kurt Johns, a comfortably rustic Victorian set by designer Keith Pitts and handsome period costumes by Patti Roeder.

The play, partly inspired by the artist's short-lived career as an associate art dealer, takes place in London in 1873. It opens with Vincent (Christopher McLinden, a delight as the impetuous, affably awkward 20-year-old son of a Dutch minister) inquiring about renting a room from Ursula Loyer (the great Lisa Dodson delivering a polished performance), a liberal widow whose Brixton home doubles as a day school for young boys.

...Vincent moves into the house Ursula shares with her daughter Eugenie (the likable Erica Elam) and Sam, a passionately proletarian craftsman played by a convincing Gregory Isaac, who delivers a relaxed yet thoughtful performance.

[Vincent and Ursula] begin an affair, during which Ursula nurtures and encourages her maturing lover's budding genius. The change in Vincent alarms his parents, who send sister Anna (played with shrill self-righteousness by Mattie Hawkinson), to extricate her brother from the woman they believe is keeping him from pursuing a career as an artist.

Apple Tree's production succeeds thanks to a winning cast whose sensitivitiy and conviction make this a delicacy worth tasting.

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Highlights from the Gay Chicago Magazine review by Emily Lee

Apple Tree's delightful offering is the perfect marriage of high production quality and a superbly written script. Garnering the 2003 Olivier Award for best new play and a Tony nomination for best play on Broadway, Nicholas Wright's coming of age story is an imaginative telling of Vincent Van Gogh's early years in London .

Director Kurt Johns treats his audience to a multisensory delight, using set designer Keith Pitt's beautifully realized rendition of a pastoral London kitchen to the fullest extent. Delicious smells emanate from Ursula's oven almost constantly as tempting bits of herbs tantalize in a window. There is a deliberate sense of hush lilting through the air as important moments are given their due. This is not lost on light designer David Ferguson , and he never allows a harsh moment to intrude upon Johns' quiet.

Some very fine performances are added to the mix as Christopher McLinden and Lisa Dodson (Van Gogh and Ursula) both turn in topnotch work. Dodson is better here than I have ever seen her, trusting Wright's intelligent script to carry her through. However, we must credit McLinden's charming Vincent for much of Dodson's performance. All an actress really has to do is let him in. And let him in she does, sharing a sensual chemistry as strong as one will find anywhere. They are supported by a capable Erica Elam and always wonderful Gregory Isaac as Eugenie and her lover, Sam, a working man with dreams of becoming an artist. (****)

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"I love your age."

Christopher McLinden and Lisa Dodson

"Smells nice."

Gregory Isaac and Erica Elam

"Let me tell you a story while you are still in love with me."

Lisa Dodson and Christopher McLinden

"Art is a lonely road."

Christopher McLinden and Lisa Dodson

Anna discovers Vincent's secret.

Mattie Hawkinson

"I always had hopes for you."

Christopher McLinden and Lisa Dodson

"All I could see was youth and spring and life renewing itself..."

Christopher McLinden and Lisa Dodson

"Tell me Sam, do you have a girl?"

Christopher McLinden and Gregory Isaac

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When most of us think of Vincent Van Gogh, we picture the wild and prolific artist who was the ultimate victim of his own depression. We think of Kirk Douglas in Lust for Life. We don't think about his early life. There is a lot of information about his early life in Vincent's letters to his younger brother Theo. These letters were made available by Joanna Van Gogh-Bonger, Theo's wife. According to the letters, Vincent did go to London in 1873 to work for Goupil & Co., the art dealership firm where many of his family members were employed. Vincent spoke English, he read Dickens, and did take lodging at 87 Hackford Rd, Brixton South London. His actual sketch of the Loyer boarding house is pictured here.

Nicholas wrights play is a “fabulation”, a logical extension of documented reality. I think you might find that Nicholas Wright's fantasy more believable than any actuality. We are introduced to young Vincent as the black sheep son of a moralistic minister's family from rural Holland. His story reveals a portrait of the artist as a real young man who has all of the raging hormonal tendencies of youth and the unblossomed buds of artistic genius. Blending the actual and imagined, Wright speculates that van Gogh's sexual and artistic awakening is kindled by an affair with a much older woman, Ursula Loyer. It is in Ursula, that Vincent's nascent artistic self meets kindred spirit in depth, passion, and darkness. Ursula finds in Vincent a catalyst to draw her out of her emotional isolation. The play is just as much her story as his. There are many relationships which are explored in very human terms in the Loyers' Victorian kitchen. They are funny, touching, frustrating, and noble. They offer us insight into family, love and a tragic artist's beginnings.

As the director of Vincent in Brixton, I am grateful to the Apple Tree Theatre for including it and me in their season. We hope you will enjoy our production of Vincent in Brixton.

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