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Review: Jobsite Theater Presents Steve Martin's Absurdist Comedy PICASSO AT THE LAPIN AGILE at the Shimberg

The production runs through October 9th.

Review: Jobsite Theater Presents Steve Martin's Absurdist Comedy PICASSO AT THE LAPIN AGILE at the Shimberg

"Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former." --attributed to Albert Einstein

"When I was a child my mother said to me, 'If you become a soldier, you'll be a general. If you become a monk, you'll be the pope.' Instead I became a painter and wound up as Picasso." --Pablo Picasso

Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, created in 1907, was more than just groundbreaking; it was actually Century-making. It's a line in a sand of sorts, a before and after. It launched Modernism as we know it, and the world would never be the same after it. However, if you glance at it in an art book, it looks kind of small and inconsequential. It's not until you've ventured to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City that you can see how imposing it really is. This is not some tiny and disappointing Mona Lisa behind glass; this is huge, eight feet tall and wide, featuring five Goliath-sized prostitutes. When I first saw it at the MOMA, I stopped dead in my tracks and took in a deep breath. There it was, gargantuan in size and scope, its influence infinite. In its way, it would change the course of history.

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon makes an appearance late in Steve Martin's 1993 play, PICASSO AT THE LAPIN AGILE, and even here, it doesn't give us a sense of the scale, the breathtaking magnitude of the work. We know it's something special, but just by looking at an average-sized projection of it, we never get a sense of how explosive it would become. With its echoes of primitivism, the proto-Cubist masterpiece would become that flag in the sand, the true start of the Twentieth Century, which in turn would become a century of change and technological advancement the likes the world would never dream. For the record, Matisse hated Picasso's painting, which proves that Henri was a better artist than art critic.

Picasso knew where his place in history would stand. "The Twentieth Century has to start somewhere, so why not now?" he's quoted in PICASSO AT THE LAPIN AGILE.

If you don't buy Picasso as the harbinger of a new century, then how about Albert Einstein? Two years before Picasso's she-hulking women of Avignon shook the world, in September of 1905, Einstein published his earthshaking four annus mirabilis papers published in Annalen der Physik, which would include a new definition of space, time, mass and energy. The third paper of the bunch introduced his theory of special relativity, and perhaps it is here, during the dawn of a new era, when the Twentieth Century first began.

In Steve Martin's comedy, PICASSO AT THE LAPIN AGILE, the actor/comedian/playwright wonders what it would be like if the Artist (young Picasso) and the Scientist (young Einstein) met in the famous Parisian bar, the Lapin Agile ("Nimble Rabbit"), on the brink of their discoveries in 1904. It's a seemingly simple premise and, to me, immediately brings to mind Terry Johnson's 1982 play (and later a Nicholas Roeg movie), Insignificance, where Einsten, Joe McCarthy, Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe meet in a hotel room in 1954. But Martin uses the premise as a debate of sorts--between the world of science and art. We label both Picasso and Einstein "geniuses" but they're not the same type of genius, or are they? Is there a long divide between Cubism and Relativity, Talent and Genius, Inspiration and Formula?

But that makes PICASSO AT THE LAPIN AGILE seem drab, and it's anything but. It's a lively, f*ck everything, the-more-you-know-the-more-you'll-laugh kind of show. The play captures Martin's wacky outlook and fertile imagination, and the show is often hilarious...a comedy so smart that it might as well have two brains.

Martin also uses the play as a sort of springboard to recreate the Theatre of the Absurd, with nods to Pirandello, Beckett and Ionesco. Characters break the fourth wall constantly; one of them even runs into the audience and grabs a playbill. Another actually brings a script onstage, seeing if an actor missed an entrance. Characters appear for a few moments, raucously tear up the stage, then exit. It's all presentational and anything-goes fun, with some of these theatrical shenanigans working (the over-the-top monologues and music) and some falling flat and cringingly forced.

But Jobsite is the right local theater for this type of production (a ballsy comedy with depth and inanity, a work that is hit or miss), and the director, Kari Goetz, has assembled quite a coup of a cast.

Ned Averill-Snell continues his run of terrific performances as Gaston, a bar patron with sex always on his mind. Averill-Snell's voice--like the sound of a rusty French horn--will keep you awake, and his timing is so good, especially with the equally hilarious and incomparable Brian Shea as the bartender, Freddy, that we could watch those two and forget the famous souls who will soon be the spotlight. Averill-Snell's snarl was made for some of his lines; for instance, when he's lambasted for insulting people out of the blue, he spews out the comeback: "But I'm French!" He'll say a word like "hour" and make it multi-syllabic, ending it with a werewolf-like growl. Lines like "I don't trust any country that doesn't eat frogs!" turn into comic gold in Averill-Snell's clutches. And at one point he'll burst in song, like a purposefully anachronistic "When a Man Loves a Women," that had me in giggles. I can't imagine anyone better in the part.

The vastly likable Sydney Reddish showcases her versatility in playing a myriad of women, all with their own specifics. Danny Mora as Sagot, an art dealer, and Jada Canty, as the waitress Germaine, are sufficient at best in their roles. Donovan Whitney has a key part at the end of the play that I don't want to give away; let's just say it's a strong performance but just not a marvelous imitation of a very famous person (far from it), if that makes sense (see the show so you'll understand what I mean).

I'm at a quandary when it comes to Blake Smallen's performance as Albert Einstein. I remember seeing Smallen as the brother in The Hundred Dresses at Innovocative Theatre a few years back and they certainly left their mark. Although they are striking onstage, I don't know if I ever got the feeling that they are Young Einstein here. They look more like Carlos Santana during the Woodstock years and they seem to underplay the world's ultimate genius' genius. I like their first moments onstage, trying to find the perfect chair, indecisive, like a big-brained Goldilocks. But do we believe them when the character later proclaims, "I am a scientist, but sometimes I feel like an artist"? I'm torn about this, a recessive performance that may be on purpose; maybe they are trying to be opposite of the galvanizing Picasso...?

Which brings me to the part of Picasso. We wait quite awhile for his entrance, like Hickey in The Iceman Cometh, but when he appears, everything changes. Robert Spence Gabriel is outstanding in the title role, a burst of comic energy. He lithely physicalizes the part, unpredictable, a live wire. It's as if every atom in his body is electric. Even his eyebrows have a life of their own. In the battle of art versus science, with Einstein's science versus Picasso's art, art wins hands down solely due to Gabriel's winning turn.

But there is one other player in this comedy that must be mentioned: Jonelle Meyer as the inventor, Charles Dabernow Schmendiman. This is the Ultimate Jonelle Meyer Performance that we've been waiting for. She's knockout hilarious here with every gesture, every perfect pause. She's nonstop, tearing up the stage, and after five minutes she's gone. But we will never forget her; it's a comic dynamo and what follows is a tsunami of laughter (mainly from me; I couldn't help but laugh out loud at the deliriously funny Meyer).

Brian Smallheer's set works fine, aided by Jo Averill-Snell's creative lighting. There are two universes at play here--the bar and the cosmos. The window designs reminded me of the Harlequin shirt pattern in Picasso's 1905 Rose Period painting, Au Lapin Agile. And the bar itself is standard fare. (I heard someone say before the show, "Looks like a Chili's.") Anne Acosta's costumes are suitable to the age, and I found it interesting that Einstein's attire was far tidier than Picasso's (I always thought Albert was more rumpled-looking than this, but maybe that occurred with age). And Jeremy Doughlass' sound design really ups the ante, especially the earth-shifting sound as characters go into one of their strange interludes.

Jobsite tackled PICASSO AT THE LAPIN AGILE over a decade ago, and it seems the right fit for them and the intimate Shimberg Theater, with the very talented director Kari Goetz leading the way, to bring it back to today's audience in today's world, which is obviously much different from 2009 (let alone 1904). It's always fun seeing the world and major players before seismic events shifted it, like the day in July 1957 when John Lennon first met Paul McCartney. And although the Picasso-Einstein meeting is fictional, it plays quite real. I had to mull the show over after seeing it, my feelings about it. It's funny, but its debate about art and science hits home and continues to this day. And in this crazy world, especially in this crazy state, it's become more pertinent than ever.

PICASSO AT THE LAPIN AGILE at the Shimberg in the Straz Center for the Performing Arts runs until October 9th.

Regional Awards

From This Author - Peter Nason

    An actor, director, and theatre teacher, Peter Nason fell in love with the theatre at the tender age of six when he saw Mickey Rooney in “George M!” at the Shady Grove in ... (read more about this author)

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