Dallas — There’s a fairly reputable anthropological hypothesis that pre-modern humans couldn’t see the color blue. The eye, this research proposes, has evolved since the time of Homer, hence his description of “the wine dark sea.”
The evolution of how mankind perceives the world is the subject of Resolute Theater Project’s latest production, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, written by Steve Martin and directed by Shawn Gann.
Set in the famous Parisian bar is a fictional meeting of the Spanish painter Pablo Picasso (Adrian Villalobos) and the German physicist Albert Einstein (Matthew Eitzen) along with an outstanding ensemble cast. The time is 1904, one year before Einstein would publish his theory of relativity and three years before Picasso would paint his Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Or as the play proposes, bring about the modern world.
The artfulness of the prose and playfulness in the stage direction is magnificently balanced in a way that makes the play approachable for a novice audience or a well-read and frequent theatergoer. The fourth wall is broken early, but not too often, drawing in the audience and giving the actors plenty of meat on the bone.
The structure of the play, a true ensemble comedy, is a well conducted symphony in the hands of these actors and Gann. Rather than the oft used formula of “Character 1 and Character 2 enter, they make jokes, they exit,” we get quick-witted dialogue amongst the many actors on the stage that’s not only for getting quick and hearty laughs, but also to build the story.
For a limited run and with limited rehearsal, one can’t overstate how complex this type of play is and how well executed. While there was a rare line flub on the performance reviewed on opening weekend, overall the production was finely paced, helped by the superb casting, sometimes without regard to gender.
Dallas newcomer Adrian Villalobos is one to watch. His Picasso is a tortured genius, or possibly acting like a tortured genius to sate his libido. His work is fine-tuned and his timing, seeing as he’s never worked with these actors before, is terrific.
Matthew Eitzen’s Einstein is erudite and exasperated comedy at its finest. The relationship he develops with Picasso is the play’s theme within a theme: can we find commonality where we don’t think it exists?
Edna Gill as Picasso’s love interest Suzanna, a young street smart heartbreaker, plays a brilliant straight man. “Letting the game come to you” is a difficult task for an actor in a large role, but she sets up her cast-mates to grand effect.
Ryan Maffei as Schmendiman and Sakyiwaa Baah, doing double duty as the Countess and Admirer, are funny. As if the audience hadn’t already been rolling on the floor, the late introduction of these characters pushes the audience over the edge. The laughter was so loud at the performance reviewed that the actors almost had to shout their lines.
John Pfaffenberger as Gaston, a Lapin Agile regular, and Meagan Harris as Sagot, Picasso’s art dealer, add admirable range to the characters in the play. Pfaffenberger’s Gaston is a bar philosopher and romantic, Sagot a cynic and lothario. These characters rarely interact because their conversations with the rest of the cast fulfill a similar function of stretching the play and giving it breadth.
The depth in the play comes from the performances of Robert Gemaehlich as Freddy and Jenna Anderson as Germaine, Freddy’s girlfriend. Together they manage the Lapin Agile and are the Everyman characters, bearing witness to (and analyzing) the new epoch of history. Freddy is a slightly less life-worn version of Bogart’s Rick Blaine, but with the same penchant for tragic romance. Gemaelich’s delivery (and memorable math quiz of Einstein) keep the play humming and give the appropriate cues to the audience to shifts in the tone of the play.
Anderson’s Germaine is not only capable of predicting the future with startling accuracy, but also a character that accepts who they are and what life offers. Ranging from tête-à-têtes with Einstein and his ideas to Picasso’s seductress, Anderson shows the depth of the human condition in this new modern era: you don’t have to be just one thing.
And Mein Gott! — as Eitzen’s Einstein would say in a convincing German accent) — Emily Faith as The Visitor. One feels duty bound to not give too much away about this character, but few playwrights would dare to do what Martin has done here, and if they did would be hard pressed to succeed. Faith shakes up the play as The Visitor” with both a tender and burning presence.
Jacob Hughes’ lighting is excellent, especially considering the rather small performance space in a dance studio. The set design by Tim Clifford and the hair and makeup by Bear Campbell set the scene commendably.
Hemingway famously wrote “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” And this is what Picasso at the Lapin Agile echoes: that the Paris of Hemingway, where you can bump into Picasso and Einstein sharing a drink at the bar and take part in a conversation about art and the universe and truth and love is what modernity has to offer.
This play lets you in on that conversation.