An East Passyunk Crossing actor will channel a lauded painter’s fierce quest for love and stature.
A common conception holds that most artists will receive adulation only posthumously. As he sold only one of his more than 900 works yet has become a coveted creator for collectors, Vincent van Gogh offers proof of that belief.
Brian Cowden knows all about the struggles the Dutch master faced during his brief life and beginning Tuesday, he will portray the painter as a young man seeking affection and inspiration in the Walnut Street Theatre’s production of “Vincent in Brixton.”
“I play him as someone who is starting to discover the depth of his desires, both artistically and sensually,” the resident of the 800 block of Dudley Street said of the Post-Impressionist icon following a Feb. 7 rehearsal. “Part of the appeal is knowing where he will go, but at the start of the action, he is only a 20-year-old with ample ambition yet little direction.”
The four-act piece debuted in 2003 at London’s National Theatre, capturing that year’s Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play and a Tony Award nomination for Best Play. It opens in 1873 and situates van Gogh as a London-based art dealer who develops feelings for his landlady’s daughter. The script mixes fact and fiction, with Cowden drawn to the chief by-product of that blend.
“He gets to be in love and open his heart despite the possibility of heartbreak,” the 27-year-old East Passyunk Crossing inhabitant said. “That opportunity to notice and go after beauty unabashedly is a great feeling for him and a great one for me to bring to the stage.”
Having a chance to convey that vulnerability nearly fell to someone else, as Cowden had auditioned for another role. He landed the job in June and began formal preparation last month, although he confesses to feeling as if he had nearly nailed a huge aspect of van Gogh’s identity long before setting eyes on Nicholas Wright’s opus.
“We both have a tremendous sense of drive and urge to put into our craft as much as we can to produce a better understanding of our connection to others,” he said. “However, we differ in a few ways that make taking on his persona so instructional.”
Syntactical elements and discrepancies in views on the frequency of occasions to thrive head their variations, with Cowden finding van Gogh’s blind sense of having only one shot at success disturbing and invigorating.
“In searching for his ‘in,’ he struggled to accept that failure is often a call to modify an approach and not necessarily a demand to revamp oneself,” he said, adding his character’s religious leanings, psychological and physical frailties and engrossing pursuits of acceptance all earn examination in the play, which is receiving its first staging at the Walnut, the nation’s oldest continuously operating theater at 204 years old.
“He marched to a different beat and felt pushed in so many directions, all to find out the various aspects of what it means to love and explore his artistry,” Cowden said. “He lost more often than he won, but I can’t play what’s yet to come. I’m Vincent as someone who wants a bright future yet who cannot fully grasp his present.”
Along with an abundant reserve of zeal, the thespian shares with van Gogh a desire to be the center of attention. That yearning led the Mechanicsburg native to take improvisation classes as a youth and made his early adulthood a period for altering lofty goals that included being a film star.
“I came to love the immediacy of theater more,” Cowden said of the professional shift that occurred during his sophomore year at Center City’s University of the Arts. “I felt as if I could gain more of a sense of what motivates people and channels their energy.”
A talent for tackling diverse roles has benefited Cowden, whose turn as van Gogh will mark his second time at the Walnut following 2009’s world premiere of “The Eclectic Society.” He has worked for Philadelphia’s Arden, Mauckingbird and Pig Iron theatre companies and Azuka Theatre and the Malvern-based People’s Light & Theatre Co., developing a knack for appreciating each individual’s nuances. In that vein, he has done considerable homework on van Gogh, who died of a supposedly self-inflicted gunshot wound at 37.
“He lived a damaged existence,” Cowden said of the figure, who battled alcohol dependency, a strained friendship with fellow Post-Impressionist Paul Gaugain and mental instability that led him in 1888 to cut off his left ear.
The performer does not have to examine such heavy despair in the work, which spans the winter through summer of ’73 and concludes in the fall of ’75, nor does he have to put his self-professed horrific artistic skills to use until the final scene, but Cowden believes his depiction catches van Gogh at a formative stage, where art for art’s sake meshes with love for love’s sake to produce a pitiful yet powerful look at the play’s namesake. As a teacher and stage combat instructor at Center City’s MacGuffin Theatre & Film Co., he encourages his 12- to 17-year-old students to be as adamant about being emotive as he is when attacking a script.
Along with strengthening his mind, Cowden builds up his body as a mixed martial artist, with two amateur bouts to his name.
“It’s great to have an outlet outside the theater,” Cowden, whose “Vincent” castmates include Liz Filios of the 1600 block of South Fifth Street as the title character’s sister, said. “Plus, I’m really excited about continuing ‘My Ruined Life,’ which is a film series I do that has won some awards. Like van Gogh, I’m interested in exploring what life has to offer, but even if things become a little uncertain, I intend to keep my ears intact.”
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