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A CurtainUp Review
--Review of world premiere in Philadelphia
by Kathryn Osenlund
On the stage well-rendered stone walls, in a cutaway view, rise to a suggested vaulted ceiling. Stacks of old paintings, backs facing out, lean against the walls. The elaborate set design just provides a frame for a very simple set up. A metal desk is centrally placed, along with a few chairs. The lighting remains general and unchanged throughout the single act until the last moment, when it fades. Except for the cutaway vista and the handling of three of the pictures by the characters-- the set, lighting, and action are static, relying on the actors' words to bring the stage to life.
Set in 1941 during the German occupation of Paris, A Picasso has two characters. The Gestapo's hired gun art critic-turned-interrogator, Miss Fischer (Lisa Banes), is a blonde with 40s movie star looks and an interesting story of her own. The Picasso character (Jeffrey DeMunn) is dressed as one might imagine he would have dressed, but the likeness ends there. The character's physical resemblance, however, is less important than machismo or brio, of which we get just a taste.
Miss Fischer informs Picasso that he must authenticate three art works. The three selected for this play represent not his well known artistic periods, but rather, moments that were turning points in Picasso's life. So each of the pictures tells a story, and each has personal resonance for the artist.
Gradually he learns that if he will comply he can save two of them. However, one, "A Picasso," must star at a Nazi art burning party. These two characters need to come to some accommodation.
Although the play is backgrounded by real events in Picasso's life, and he actually was questioned by the Germans more than once, the story told here is an invention carefully crafted around the playwright's purposes. Picasso is placed under pressure, and he must respond and fight to hold on to his art. The man who painted "Guernica" would have Miss Fischer believe that he holds no political opinions. Miss Fischer is indeed a Nazi, but she has a "baseline of humanity," as Hatcher said in the post-show conversation with dramaturg, Michele Volansky.
The interrogation format allows for alternating dialogue and monologues. Picasso's stories naturally dominate, but the interrogator gets her turn as storyteller in a brief but illuminating piece. This encounter must have required a pile of research to construct, and it was undubtedly fun for the playwright to imagine the back & forth revealing Picasso and his interrogator. The parts are rewarding for the actors -- in terms of ideas, innuendo, little digs, turns of phrase: "Could you copy the Mona Lisa?" . . ."Yes, but you'd never recognize her." The actors are both on top of the language, with fine delivery and timing.
Most of the story is contained in the past, not in the scene at hand. The exposition of basic historical facts is not dramatic; however, there is drama in the three pictures' stories. The first, a drawing of a little child has the most fully realized story. The second picture's pivotal story concerns Picasso's friend, Apollinaire. The two were arrested and Apollinaire spent some time in jail while Picasso, who made no appeals for his friend, was released after a few hours. Dramatic possibilities remain buried in this story, which cries out for more attention. Both this and the third story could use more treatment, even as the play seems to need more story development in its present.
Exposed by his past as an egotist and something of a monster to his own children, Picasso needs to live more on the stage. A womanizer who is cruel to women, but evidently blessed with huge charm, he must find a solution to the problem this woman has presented to him. There's an opportunity for theatricality here that is not fully exploited.
The audience catches only glimpses of the pictures in question. In fact, in terms of visuals, there isn't much to see and this could just as successfully have been a radio play. The action is in the verbal exchange. It reminds me of the joke about the movie, My Dinner with Andre: Where can you get the action figures?
Suffice to say, and without giving away too much, when Picasso comes up with a solution to his problem, the audience quickly sees the implications that it takes Fischer, a bright character, overly long to realize. You'd think this Nazi interrogator would be more alert to tricks.
Along the way Hatcher works in zingers about Germans, among other topics, and he takes swipes at critics, and they're good ones-- not the least of which is the fact that the Nazi shown here is a critic.
It has been through stages of refinement, yet this piece plays like a promising work-in-progress. It has been furnished with an ending, yet it seems unfinished. Still, the playwright, a skilled wordsmith with a feel for actors, has an interesting project here and it's a theatre piece well worth seeing.
Mendes at the Donmar
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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