By Toni Wilson Wood
Waterloo – I am not certain that Charles Stilwell, guest director for this production of Picasso at the Lapin Agile, could have found a better cast for this funny absurd work. Thanks to Steve Martin’s fine writing, the characters were fully drawn and well formed, from the titular character to the female admirer who only had a few lines. Stilwell and company took this excellent bizarre little script about genius and art and how and if the two can intersect and created a world that I certainly didn’t want to leave.
The R.J. McElroy Theatre in the Walker Building is home to this production and the bar set up for the Lapin Agile is intimate and lovely. With the audience on three sides and the way the tables in the bar are set, members of the audience really feel like they are a part of the action–even regulars at the bar when the characters break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience. Scott Schuster’s design of the set makes the bar welcoming and intimate–a place one could really become a regular at; David Harnois’ lighting design deepens the warm intimacy of the environment and Danielle Mason’s costume work helps to complete the world the characters live in.
Picasso takes place in Paris in 1904, one year before Albert Einstein publishes the Special Theory of Relativity and three years before Pablo Picasso painted ‘Les Demoiselles D’Avignon’. These two titans of genius walk into a bar and begin this lovely, funny and touching play. Dismiss any thoughts that this a hoity-toity boring play about academia; Martin has written a work that contains both a discussion of time and space, art and anatomy jokes.
Freddy (Jens Petersen) and his girlfriend, Germaine (Michelle Rathe), run the bar, and there is a stream of regulars who visit. Gaston (Bill Shaffer) is a slightly dirty old man who is just becoming used to being an old man and all the prostate issues that come with it. Shaffer’s portrayal of Gaston was so effortless and a joy to watch, that you wouldn’t be surprised if he just walked in off the street as this character fully formed. Sagot (John Mardis) is an over the top art dealer. Suzanne (Megan Schlumbohm) is a beautiful young lady who is in love with Picasso and hoping to run into him again. Mardis in particular has some delightful business with a small Matisse painting he has brought into the bar to show off. Megan plays Suzanne with the desperation of a young woman in love, yet with enough self confidence to know when she might need to walk away.
Petersen’s Freddy slowly gets drunk and waxes more philosophically as the play progresses, and he and Rathe’s Germaine argue over her pattern for coming to work late, his harassment of the patrons of the bar, his drinking and whether she is a post-romanticist or a neo-romanticist. Rathe’s Germaine is luminous, whether she is fighting with Freddy, explaining to Einstein that he needs comedy in his ‘Theory of Relativity’ if he wants to sell copies, or making Picasso feel two inches tall for being a womanizer.
Mike Schlumbohm’s Albert Einstein is down-to-earth, funny and self-deprecating. At the point where he was discussing the publication of his book ‘The Theory of Relativity’ with Germaine, his shoulders slumped, down trodden. All I wanted to do at that point was run on the stage, hug him and explain to him how important the book would be. Mike makes Einstein less of, well, Einstein, and more human. Brian Merrick’s Pablo Picasso, in stark contrast to Mike’s calm Einstein, alternates between passionately arguing about his own genius among artists and seducing Suzanne, whom he has seduced before. Twice. And had forgotten. Merrick’s Picasso is passionate and energetic–he was hard to not watch when on stage.
As the play hurtles to its conclusion, the arguments about art and genius are interspersed with a wild and crazy self-proclaimed genius, Charles Davernow Schmendiman (played with the glee of a tamer Tasmanian Devil by Joel Zummak), the arrival of Einstein’s date, the Countess (played as the perfect counterpart to Einstein by Janelle Ewing), a female admirer who ends up admiring the wrong genius with ego deflating results (played sharply by Beverly McCusker) and even a time traveling musical visitor stops by, seducing Germaine and admonishing people to stay off his shoes (played with cool panache by Neal Petersen).
The play is completely enjoyable and moves at a fast clip; I was stunned that 45 minutes had passed when the lights went up for intermission. Of all of Stilwell’s directing work, I think Picasso is far and away my favorite, and perhaps, will be yours as well.