Picasso at the Lapin Agile

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By Philip Pearce

WESTERN STAGE’S new production of Steve Martin’s 1993 comedy Picasso at the Lapin Agile is eighty-five minutes of pure delight.

It’s about a 1904 meeting in a Paris bar between Picasso, three years before his “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon” exploded onto the world art scene, and Einstein, a year before he published his “Special Theory of Relativity.” Of course that meeting never actually took place. But starting from the kind of “What if?” premise that has sparked so much great art and great science, Martin takes an informed but jokey look at what might have happened if it had.

One of the few predictabilities of this playful piece is that the two geniuses will analyze and fight about art versus science. Martin is clearly well informed about Cubism and relativity theory but he never rubs your nose in his erudition. Like Tom Stoppard, he sets out to entertain and the evening at what we would call the Sprightly Rabbit keeps pulling the rug from under a lot of potentially high powered academic moments.

The young Einstein, played by Rafael Estrada with a charming sly assurance that never gets aggressive, enters the bar and introduces himself to host Freddy and a seasoned regular named Gaston, played by Gary Bolen, a geriatric joy in his first Western Stage appearance. Claiming to be only recently aged, Gaston has little interest in anything unconnected to sex, alcohol or the importunate pressures of his prostate gland. Both he and Freddy refuse at first to believe Einstein is who he says he is because his hair is too neatly combed. Once they have messed it up, they listen as young Albert explains he is keeping a date with a woman who has agreed to meet him at a different bar. Full of a mysterious confidence, he is sure she’ll also show up at this wrong address for their evening together on the town.

In a deft piece of Marx Brothers surrealism, the organized and rule-ridden Freddy, acted with wonderful full-throated zip and conviction by Scott Free, then accuses Einstein  not only of checking into the wrong address but of coming early. Freddy borrows a program from a front row spectator to prove that Einstein is Number 4 in the list of Characters in Order of Appearance and must therefore clear the premises until the correct Number 3 enters.

She does so, in the dynamic, charming, insightful person of Jennifer L Newman as Freddy’s girlfriend Germaine, Einstein soon returns and races through a repetition of all his previous exposition. We are then told about the proposed arrival of a bumptious local loverboy named Pablo, who claims to be some kind of artist.

We learn about him from a flashy local playgirl named Suzanne, all fuss and fancy feathers in the hands of the talented Niki Moon. She gives a detailed description of Pablo’s recent pickup and lovemaking tactics on a night they have just spent together at her place and hope to repeat this evening.

But when Pablo, the gifted Hartnell drama student Gabriel Alvizo, arrives in a burst of nautical tee-shirt and macho bravado, he launches the same old pickup tactics as before, oblivious to the fact that he and Suzanne have already met. Confronted with his blunder, he explains tenderly that every word and gesture come from the heart, it’s just not easy to remember who he’s aiming them at.

It’s that kind of show. You keep guessing wrong and laughing at your mistakes, and iconic figures keep getting sent up like supporting clowns in a farce.

The central art/science conflict comes to a climax in a duel in which Einstein and Picasso square off, stabbing at each other with pencils and shielding themselves with paper notepads. As in any comedy worth its salt, their antagonisms get resolved and they become buddies, ready to stride assuredly into world fame. But somebody (Freddy or Gaston, I forget which) is convinced 20th century immortality needs not a pair but a trio of geniuses.

A bowler-hatted Oliver Hardy look-alike named Charles Dabernow Schmendiman bobbles in to assert his right to be the third side of the fame triangle. His claim to equality with Einstein and Picasso rests on future inventions in which he will combine plastics, asbestos, pesticides and a host of other industrial toxins. Paul McCormack is hilarious as this cheerfully undeterred bumbling bourgeois, whose only enduring invention turns out to be the use of the word “cheese” when you pose for group photographs.

A more compelling candidate for future world fame does arrive, time-warped in from the upcoming mid-century. Played with clever accuracy and plenty of moxie by Jason Roeder, he is never named, except as The Visitor. But if you can’t identify him you’ve spent the past half century in hibernation.

To a person, the cast give it movement and meaning. Stephen C Abate is wonderfully pedantic and opinionated as Picasso’s busybody, camera-wielding agent Sagot. There are brief but effective appearances by Katherine Adrian as Einstein’s aristocratic date and Chelsea Palmer as an explosive Parisian groupie.

Dennis Beasley’s brisk direction keeps the action shifting to and from different sections of the Studio Theater stage and audience. Jordan Janota has designed a checkerboard floor and period bar that lure you into the Lapin Agile the minute you take your seat.

You’ll be sorry if you miss it, weekends through November 18th.

Photo by Richard Green

Antony and Cleopatra

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By Philip Pearce

ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA features some of Shakespeare’s most sublime language and characters. But if you think that means Pacific Rep’s new production is full of pageantry, blank verse and tasteful togas, you’ll need to think again. What it offers is a brilliant, full-throttle ironic take on a Shakespearean masterpiece.

The lovers are as athletically erotic, unpredictably violent and darkly comic as any I’ve ever seen in the two central roles. Michael Storm is so powerful, focused and single minded as Antony that it’s tough, however artfully he goes through the motions, to believe he could even for a year or two become the doting slave of the Egyptian queen.

But then again she is played by the gloriously gifted Julie Hughett who more than justifies Enobarbus’ praise of Cleopatra’s “infinite variety.” Hughett gives us a mature woman who has served her romantic apprenticeship with Julius Caesar, among others, and is now an unparalleled expert in the tricks and turns of international love making. Possibly even better at conveying Cleopatra’s moments of jealousy and self-deception, Hughett has two scenes with Matthew T Pavellas as a terrified messenger bringing news of Antony’s marriage to another woman, played broader and funnier than any I have experienced in earlier visits to this play. Yet, for all her quicksilver explosions of feeling, Hughett never fails to project Shakespeare’s dialogue with impressive clarity.

Kenneth Kelleher has chosen to direct the story in the costumes, weaponry and attitudes of 1930s film noir. Cleopatra’s Egypt has the sleazy sophistication of Berlin in the closing days of the Weimar Republic. Yearning for her absent Antony, Cleopatra finds solace in dope from a reed pipe. Her attendants Charmian (a versatile Jennifer Le Blanc, who also plays Antony’s conventional Roman bride Octavia) and Iras (a beautiful and spirited Michelle Vallentyne) are a lesbian couple. Victim of their heartless group jibes is the caretaker eunuch Alexas, played with a gray suit and a lot of stoic pathos by Lewis Rhames.

The political big wigs of Mark Antony’s Rome dress like Wall Street bankers but inside their natty two piece suits they are gun packing gangsters. Justin Gordon is a convincing, calculating, bespectacled Caesar, who calls Antony away from Egypt to oppose the military threat of an upstart called Pompey (Rhames again, in a John Silver style turnabout). Caesar wants to put down Pompey by forming a three-man ruling partnership with Antony and Howard Burnham’s sympathetic but politically naive Lepidus. Watching the ensuing trickery and heavy boozing, you feel it’s a wonder the Empire survived as long as it did.

Countering all the political chicanery and erotic fireworks is Jeffrey Heyer, wonderfully earth-bound, tough and worldly wise as Antony’s military pal Enobarbus. Most productions take his famous description of Cleopatra floating past an enraptured crowd on her royal barge and fence it off as an isolated aria. Not so here. True to character and the pervading sardonic tone, Heyer’s battle-scarred Enobarbus offers the speech with a slyly lascivious locker-room wink and nod.

The limited space of the Circle Theater means battle scenes are compressed into imaginative symbolic patterns of gun-toting violence. Actors not engaged in a particular sequence are often used to silently shape the playing area and focus attention on the performing characters. Garland Thompson has effective moments in the spotlight as Caesar’s ingratiating messenger Maecenas, basking in the emperor’s favor, only to suffer a humiliating and well-acted rejection and beating. I warmed to the warm-hearted loyalty of Andrew Mazer as a friend of Antony named Eros and even more as the Clown who supplies Cleopatra with her famous deadly asp. I wasn’t dead sure, but it looked as if it was a poisonous drug injection, not a slimy serpent.

The performances throughout are clear, thorough and a bit noisy. If this admirable production has a fault it’s a tendency of everyone to try to out-shout everyone else. The action is swift and vivid, but Kelleher never loses touch with the underlying need to tell a story that involves lots of complicated historic events. Significant costuming helps. Cleopatra’s startling appearance in a sailor suit points ahead to the important offstage sea battle of Actium. From time to time, back projected newspaper headlines help establish the locale and political point of what is happening center stage. Torch songs from a tinny period phonograph also comment ironically on the action. When pressures from Rome force Antony to leave Egypt, a turntable whines out “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone.” A soothsayer, played with sly menace and a fine singing voice by Justin Gaudoin, drifts through the action, responding to requests for Tarot card predictions of success or failure in love and war. A nice innovation of this stunning show is the way this supporting character doesn’t so much participate in the action as lurk in the shadows whenever he appears. Almost like the MC in Cabaret, he begins to suggest and even embody the superstitious corruption of the society around him. The play closes not with the death of Cleopatra but with this weird wanderer singing along with a scratchy recording of “What Is This Thing Called Love.”

Antony and Cleopatra plays weekends through November 5th.

Photo by Stephen Moorer