PICASSO AT THE LAPIN AGILEBy Steve Martin
Resolute Theatre Project
Directors – Shawn Gann
Asst. Director & Stage Manager – Jordan Sanchez
Set Design – Tim Clifford
Costume Design – Nathan Scott
Lighting Design – Jacob Hughes
Sound Design – Joshua Hahlen
Hair & Makeup – Bear Campbell
Freddy – Robert Gemaehlich
Gaston – John Pfaffenberger
Germaine – Jenna Anderson
Albert Einstein – Matthew Eitzen
Suzanne – Edna Gill
Sagot – Meagan Harris
Pablo Picasso – Adrian Villalobos
Charles Dabernow Schmendiman – Ryan Maffei
The Countess & Admirer – Sakyiwaa Baah
A Visitor – Emily Faith
Reviewed Performance: 4/7/2018
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
It's Montmartre in 1983. Paris is suffering from a garbage strike. Piles of garbage fill the sidewalks, and, yet, it's Paris! Somehow we survive. I was exploring art museums and soaking up creative spirit that spring. When you study art in Paris, Montmartre is a must-see side-trip, walking the streets where the creative elite spent their free time while they changed history. They argued passionately over politics and culture, usually over an absinthe. They sought love. And major movements in artistic expression began right there in those streets. Everyone told me to walk across town to the Rue des Saules to visit a small cabaret, called Au Lapin Agile. You could mistake it for an old house even then, but this was a center of development of modern art as we know it.
The little French bistro was named Au Lapin Agile Cabaret (Nimble Rabbit) after Pablo Picasso hung his Au Lapin Agile on the wall in 1905, but a year earlier, barely known, he had created nothing of note. We forget even Picasso was a starving artist struggling to find his muse, just as he was beginning to see the world in a new way. That cabaret is still presenting art and music today.
Outside of France, though, Au Lapin Agile Cabaret may be known more for a play by an American artist, Steve Martin. Yea, the "wild and crazy guy from Saturday Night Live." Picasso at the Lapin Agile, suggests a mythical meeting between Picasso, Albert Einstein and a strange visitor from the future. The scientist and artist were contemporaries and, though they did not know each other then, their lives impacted the world in parallel ways. Relativism and cubism were unknown forces at the time, but today we take their influence for granted.
Picasso at the Lapin Agile, presented by Resolute Theatre Project in North Dallas, was a funny, thoughtful romp through the heady ideas of relativity and the nature of artistic expression. Producer Amy Cave wrote, "Steve Martin gives us the opportunity to focus on the human qualities that define civilization." Director Shawn Gann added, "…it's (Martin's) ability to insert the absurd into any situation but also his idealistic take on creating… ." Martin's comedic art is a product of those early days of Picasso and other Avant Garde thinkers.
Director Gann cast a talented ensemble of actors who could imagine these eccentric, larger-than-life characters as everyman humans struggling with their demons and imaginations and made them seem somewhat normal. These characters were written as relatable people in extraordinary circumstances, but it took these actors to make them live.
Freddy owns the bar and struggles with a business where starving artists seldom pay their bills. Robert Gemaehlich played this guy with the insecurity of a man trying to make ends meet while showing the bravado of a proud Parisian young man. Freddy is an impresario of sorts who understands the elusive nature of art. He's a friend to artists, though a bit grudgingly. Gemaehlich had a great voice (voice-over in real life) and this stood out in this play with a myriad of other eccentric voices and accents. In Gemaehlich's choices for Freddy, he was a working Parisian who has his own opinions, some profound, but who struggles to live well and sees the world through jaded eyes.
John Pfaffenberger as Gaston created the stereotypical Parisian café frequent flyer. With a fair bit of French accent and a cynical, but thoughtful, view of the world, his main focus is his new status as "recently old" as he tries to explain his lack of love in this new incarnation. Frequent trips to the bathroom, which Pfaffenberger plays with an apparent familiarity that made his facial expressions funny without words, betrayed Gaston's importance as the traditional view of the commoner. He questions everything as if he has important views on all the subjects. These new modern ideas everyone is floating are laughable, but every Frenchman thinks he's an artist at heart, so Pfaffenberger gives Gaston a kind of pride in his own mastery as he makes snide remarks about the others. A few of those a pretty powerful.
Germaine, created by Jenna Anderson, is Freddy's girl, though there's some relationship tensions with her modern view of womanhood versus Freddy's traditional male view. Anderson played with a quiet sexuality inherent in Germaine as she spars with Freddy, teases the other men, and apparently has a thing for Picasso. Anderson looked comfortable in her character's ambivalences, showering Germaine with a mixture of hope and cynicism as she expressed old arguments about modern versus traditional values. Anderson showed this ambivalence between Germaine's feeling for excitement over a mysterious, attractive artist and the stability of a life with Freddy.
Albert Einstein is looking for a lady, though he told her he'd be somewhere else. Matthew Eitzen didn't have the iconic Einsteinian wild-hair look, but he did share something with the 25-year old Einstein. Albert's theory of relativity, the Special version, had not been published yet. Like the starving artist, he was a starving scientist. Eitzen's strong German accent and his high-minded sense of scientific superiority made Einstein's aloof disdain for everyone palpable. No one understands the way time and space bends, and so he has little regard for them. But in time disdain gradually changes as he's challenged by Picasso. Eitzen relished the science versus art fight, as if it was a prize fight. His use of scientific language in a German accent seemed like a challenge he loved to tackle. Eventually Einstein recognizes there is art in his own scientific process and Eitzen made this change in his attitude very interesting.
Pablo Picasso is Einstein's sparring partner. The young undiscovered artist's unformed ideas about artistic process fills his head and expands his imagination as he tries to discover himself. But, along with this artsy thought, he engages in a healthy dose of sexual exploration with every woman he encounters. He's suave and alluring to womanhood, once they get past his scruffy, starving-artist, style. Adrian Villalobos didn't have to go far for his Spanish accent and dashing good looks. He grew up in Bolivia and, if you count casting by looks and attitude as important, he was surely a perfect choice for the young Spanish artist. Villalobos could turn on a dime from a far-away pondering about some imaginary image to a concentrated seduction of Picasso's latest conquest. Just as suddenly he passionately lambasted his competitors, especially Matisse, and we saw that Bolivian/Spanish temper. These sudden shifts in characterization was a joy to see.
Suzanne is Picasso's main target for artistic seduction, though he seems ready to spread it around. Edna Gill created this playful little groupie chasing the handsome artist, drawn to his seductive tricks like a moth to flame. Not afraid to shock the crowd, she plays with her own sexual innuendo with all the guests. Gill seemed to enjoy this character, creating the lovable sexy vamp. She was swaying between Suzanne's attraction to Picasso's romantic style and her repulsion for his failure to remember their earlier trysts. But Suzanne is the only one who lifts Picasso out of his search for the muse and brings him to his knees. And Gill brought the audience along for the ride with this.
Sagot was written as male, but played here by Meagan Harris. It's a bit of inspired casting as she brought an added level of sensuality to this character. Sagot is an art dealer who invests in budding artists and knows her stuff. In this story she expresses the commercial aspect of art and shows how artists are eager to sell their work, even to unscrupulous dealers. Harris really wore this role well and made Sagot likable, so it seemed she unashamedly profited, but also got artists into the public eye. Fast-talking, assured, all-knowing, Harris gave Sagot an authoritative air while playing out her own multi-layered sexuality. She could be seductive with everyone and that made her more interesting, more French.
Ryan Maffei plays Schmendiman, probably the male analog to Sagot. He's a cross between a carnival barker, used car salesman and Tony Robbins and imagines himself to be as important as Picasso and Einstein. Maffei's smooth-talking self-promotion expressed Schmendiman's search for the next big thing. He invents things no one wants, but also imagines the future and Maffei takes this to a high art. He talked fast, with supreme self-confidence as Schmendiman engaged patrons with his inventive ideas, raising their spirits, albeit with some ridicule.
Sakyiwaa Baah alternated as two characters. The Countess is the lady Einstein hoped to meet when he arrived. She's beautiful royalty in her courtly floor-length silk gown and seems to be in a parallel universe with Einstein, understanding his relativistic view of the world. He's enthralled! Baah played her with confident elegance, walking, moving and talking as if The Countess excelled at her finishing-school. As quickly as a costume change, however, Baah converted to an ardent admirer of another character. The Admirer was a complete groupie in her billowing blue dress, thanks to Baah's total change in physicality and speech pattern. This scene was a quick moment of comic surprise, a recognition that even losers can find love.
Finally, The Visitor appears from another dimension, or is it a time dilation, through a mysterious portal behind the bar. The look and physical performance by Emily Faith suggested a famous identity, but I'll be faithful and not reveal that here. The Visitor is a messenger who brings words of advice from Picasso's Muse, as well as an artist of some note in more recent times. Faith played this character with an understatement that allowed her text to live. It's a character who could inspire significant over-the-top acting and distract from the message. The Visitor's purpose is to remind the audience of things to come, but even she was seeking something, perhaps a bit dismayed in her own life and Faith showed this visible longing in her own search for truth.
Director Gann did a great job of pacing this comedy and ensuring the delivery of these lines. They're fairly funny already to read on the page, but they become hilarious when delivered with the right amount of tempo and rhythm. The story is presented in a absurdist, or maybe a bit more Brechtian. There was quite a lot of interaction with the audience and some of the text seemed intent on sharing the play making process with the audience. Gann did a good job of allowing these moments to happen without dwelling on them.
Tim Clifford designed a pretty acceptable French bistro with a nice looking wood bar and all the accoutrements of drinks and glasses and bar tools, including drinks to share with the audience. There was a requisite impressionist painting and a pastoral image that generated a lot of fodder for argument. Sound effects and music by Joshua Hahlen was sparse and low-key, but important sound cues came at certain points to provide impact. Lighting by Jacob Hughes ran the gamut from bright comedic lighting to sudden dim mood hues when certain characters stepped into a memory space to a wild sequence of lights, smoke and gobo effects.
Nathan Scott created actors with some pretty outlandish costumes. There was everything from scruffy paint-covered worn-out pants and shirt to middle-class wool suits, casual slacks and shirts, elegant gowns and a unique suit from the future. All of this created a realistic atmosphere of 1904 in Paris. Bear Campbell helped create hair styles of the early 20th, as well as some future time.
Picasso at the Lapin Agile posed a serious conversation exploring the intersection of art and science and a possible explanation on how they affected our experience of humanity and culture in the 21st Century. In 1904 everyone was guessing what the 20th Century might be like and there were extraordinary predictions. Most guesses were wrong. We see a lot of this kind of talk about our future these days, also largely inaccurate. The fact that artists and scientists are willing to break down traditional prejudices and reach for wild imaginative ideas ensures we will keep moving forward in some un-guessable way. The expression of these ideas will endure as important artistic and scientific expressions of who we are as a species. But, Steve Martin is also a hopeless romantic and everyone in this story is a lover. Through all their high-minded imagination and heady talk, their mundane living was the same for them as it is for us. We all long for love and connection with our fellow Earth-mates. And we know our human struggles will endure longer than any future changes we might imagine.
Picasso at the Lapin Agile plays one more weekend and you owe it to yourselves to experience this play.
Resolute Theatre Project
Amy's Studio of Performing Arts
11888 Marsh Lane, Suite 600
Dallas, TX 75234
Plays through April 15th
Friday, Saturday at 7:30 pm ($16)
Sunday at 2:30 pm ($16)
For information and tickets, visit www.resolutetheatreproject.com.