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Relativity and Rogues

Theater Review: Picasso at the Lapin Agile

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What makes a joke funny? What makes artwork valuable? Can numbers represent beauty? Leave it to Albert Einstein scholars to tell us whether the famous physicist ever really pondered these questions. But leave it to comedian and writer Steve Martin to imagine that Einstein did -- and that Pablo Picasso was a part of the discussion.

The chance fictional meeting of Einstein and Picasso in an actual Paris cabaret is the premise of Martin's first play -- a comedy, naturally -- written in 1993 and staged to accolades nationwide. Lost Nation Theater's current production of Picasso at the Lapin Agile showcases the shtickster's well-known genius for one-liners and his more obscure gift for using light comic fare to illuminate deeper questions about life, the universe and the nature of genius itself.

The play begins simply enough. The lights go up on the Lapin Agile -- a bar, a couple of tables, some chairs and a wall displaying a few paintings -- and Freddy, the barkeep, preparing for another evening of business. He's soon joined by the crotchety, old Gaston, a regular customer; Einstein, who expects to meet his date at this bar even though they arranged to get together elsewhere; and Freddy's wife, Germaine. Almost immediately, puzzling questions spring forth: Why, for example, has Einstein come here if he knows that he's supposed to meet his date at the Bar Rouge? And why did he come on stage out of the "order of appearance" indicated in the play program?

Before long, a woman named Suzanne enters alone and begins gushing about the man who recently seduced her -- twice -- and whom she hopes to meet in the Lapin Agile tonight. That man, the up-and-coming artist Pablo Picasso, is indeed the next to arrive. Alas, he doesn't remember her. The art dealer Sagot swaggers in then, carrying a newly acquired Matisse and eager to share a few words of wisdom with anyone who'll listen.

What unfolds is not so much a series of events as an extended conversation, largely between Einstein and Picasso, each a stranger to the other and to the others' work. Picasso is quite sure of his genius -- and equally certain that rendering beauty is the artist's job, not the scientist's. Einstein is no less certain that, contrary to the conventional view, he, too, can create beauty with numbers. Over the re-mainder of the play, the two geniuses explore the ways in which their creative visions are, in fact, similar.

Given the limitations imposed by the play's setting and time -- a single barroom over the course of one evening -- and the fact that a series of conversations constitutes the dramatic action, Picasso demands much of its players. On the whole, this LNT cast rises to the challenge. Across a stage invitingly designed by Mark Evancho, director Bill Hickok coaxes sharp comic timing from each of his actors, keeping the laughs aloft while digging into the intellectual substance of Martin's script.

Evan Alboum is especially funny as Einstein and even looks -- once he pulls his hair out of whack -- remark-ably like the young scientist. He plays Einstein as warm and outgoing, not withdrawn or brainy to a fault. To equally positive effect, he makes the scientist a calm counterpoint to Greg T. Parente's frenetic Picasso. In another bold choice, Parente gives his character an electric enthusiasm and almost acrobatic physicality. The play, in turn, benefits from this jolt of energy. As Gaston, Kim Bent is a believable curmudgeon whose eyebrows and facial gestures alone tell a woeful tale of waning bladder control and an utter loss of appeal to the opposite sex.

Tim Tavcar fills Sagot's tux, top hat and spats smartly, injecting blasts of bombast into the proceedings. Lawrence McDonald, as Freddy, and Jennifer Gundy, as Germaine, play the straight man/woman to the more comical characters. Although each gets quips in here and there, for the most part they anchor the play in something at least resembling reality.

John Greene, playing Schmend-iman -- a pioneer in a "brittle and inflexible building material" and a pretender to the throne of genius -- is good in a cartoonish, over-the-top sort of way. He's equal parts P. T. Barnum and Willy Loman.

One cannot evaluate Russell Soder's performance as the Visitor without disclosing his identity -- and spoiling the play's ending. Suffice it to say that he has big shoes to fill in one of the most-played stage roles, and he carries his scenes competently. Elizabeth Capinera, Meg Hackney and Erica Miethner fill out the well-rounded cast.

Steve Martin fans, take note: Picasso at the Lapin Agile is not a standup routine. Martin has sown his script with plenty of laugh lines, but his sense of what should happen between the guffaws is less apparent. Attention seems to zip around the room, rather than drawing characters together for more than a few beats. The danger is that this pattern may lapse into a kind of monologue relay -- too much telling, not enough showing. Overall, Hickok and cast walk this line successfully. The resulting play manages to explore challenging notions, such as relativity and the elasticity of time, in an accessible manner.

What Picasso does not muster, however, is much dramatic tension. The play's big mystery is the anticipated disclosure of a third influential genius of the century. While one might guess that it's Sigmund Freud, particularly when Germaine accuses Einstein and Picasso of being motivated solely by sexual desire, this third icon comes as a complete surprise. Although this individual -- in the script identified only as the Visitor -- was an indisputable 20th-century icon, Martin's choice is a bit disappointing. One senses that, after stringing together a couple nightclub sets' worth of jokes and linking them with some brief but profound ruminations on deep stuff, the playwright struggled to tie it all up neatly. The LNT production serves the material well, involving Evancho in some lighting effects to get the job done, but the threads of the story come loose at the end.

Still, the LNT production of Picasso at the Lapin Agile is a hoot -- if for no other reason than it reveals a more thoughtful, funny side of that "wild and crazy guy." Thoughtful, of course, being relative.

Summer arts events don't get much more Vermonty than a barn play: the long dirt road leading to the venue that hasn't sheltered livestock for years; parking in a pasture; taking a seat in a cathedral of exposed beams and rafters --the air redolent of old wood and mown grass.

Such is the stage set for the production of The Robber Bridegroom currently running at the Skinner Barn in Waitsfield. But when the lights go up on this rambunctious musical, this show reveals sophistication with roots squarely in the Big Apple -- Broadway, even.

Adapted from a Eudora Welty novella by playwright/ lyricist Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy) and Robert Waldman, The Robber Bridegroom premiered on Broadway in 1976. While Waitsfield is a fair distance from Manhattan, the production does bring a touch of the Great White Way to the work. It's staged by the Commons Group, an arts and cultural organization headed by former Broadway actor and current Waitsfield resident Peter Boynton. The show features Boynton as one of the male leads; director Nick Corley, who acted with Boynton in the early '90s Broadway production of She Loves Me; and Corliss Preston, whose New York City credits include shows at the prestigious Manhattan Theatre Club, among others. Joined by actor Joseph F. Garofolo, whose opera resume includes work with major companies at home and abroad, this cast and crew deliver a polished performance that belies the informality of the house they're playing. Barnboard or no barnboard, there's big-time talent and energy in this show.

That high caliber is evident in the opening number, a sprightly song-and-dance bit in which cast members take turns introducing the story of what-all happened in Natchez Trace, Mississippi, back in 1796. It's a tall tale full of outlandish characters caught in a scoundrel's plan to swindle a wealthy plantation owner of his fortune by marrying his cherished daughter.

That eponymous scoundrel, known as Jamie Lockhart, disguises himself with berry stains to masquerade as a second mysterious, unnamed bandit who prowls the woods beyond the plantation fields. There he meets the plantation owner's daughter, Rosamund, whom he robs of her clothing and, in the process, unwittingly and amorously ensnares with his bad-boy wiles.

Meanwhile, Rosamund's father, Clement Musgrove, had been hoping to wed his daughter to Lockhart, whom he mistakenly thinks to be a gentleman after Lockhart saves him from the clutches of two bumbling would-be thieves. Musgrove is, of course, an easy mark for Lockhart, whose intentions are hardly honorable. Further complicating matters is evil stepmother Salome. Greedy and overbearing, she is forever sending Rosamund into the fields to gather herbs -- in the none-too-veiled hope that out there where the bandit lurks some misfortune will befall the child.

The acting and singing are uniformly strong. As Lockhart, Boynton trades on the rakish charm that soap-opera fans of "As the World Turns" will remember from his years playing Tonio. Dressed in jodhpurs and riding boots, he swaggers from scene to scene, besting his rivals with his sharp mind and mesmerizing gaze. Boynton's confidence rings through in his singing voice as well, his vocal stylings adding another dash of dangerous charisma to his role. Occasionally, Boynton gives off this bravado a bit too strongly; Lockhart is a character who apparently has never met a slightly elevated surface that he didn't like resting one boot cocksuredly upon. It becomes a bit predictable after the tenth time or so.

Preston shines as Rosamund. Fair-skinned and slight, she convincingly plays the innocent, unpretentious Southern belle and shows her range in one of the play's funnier scenes, when she's pretending to have lost her mind. Her Southern accent is easily the strongest of the cast; and, like Boynton, she sings with stylish flair in keeping with her eccentric character.

Garofolo's Daddy Musgrove, is an endearing presence. He too evokes an innocence that makes him more teddy bear than taskmaster, more doting father than blustery protector. In song, however, he is unquestionably the man of the house. His vocal presence is nothing short of formidable, his opera training in evidence with every note.

Were this a local theater production merely peppered with skilled out-of-towners, Robber wouldn't deserve special notice. The fact is, the entire cast is strong -- a credit to the players and, no doubt, to Corley's skillful direction. Judy Milstein, well known to audiences around the state, turns in perhaps the funniest performance of them all. Playing Salome, she demonstrates impeccable comic timing. Her singing voice is also quite good, although Salome's general meanness allows her to gruff the melodies up a bit. The same goes for David Warner in the role of Big Harp. A Philadelphia transplant and regular Seven Days theater critic, Warner taps his extensive regional theater experience for his amusingly dopey depiction of the half-wit half of a pair of crooks. Doug Bernstein plays Little Harp, the brains of the outfit -- literally a talking head that Big Harp keeps in a trunk and consults whenever a swindling opportunity is afoot.

For all the bravura performances, there may not be one single burning star in this show. Instead, the music and choreography take center stage. Under the musical direction of Tim Guiles, a seven-piece bluegrass band -- featuring several members of local favorites Atlantic Crossing -- imbues the play with a musical spirit in proportion to its outsized characters and provides musical cues that deftly accentuate story developments. A high level of precision also adds spring to the dance steps. Although the Skinner Barn stage contains no proper wings, the players move fluidly about the space, making the most of what is available without sacrificing choreographic style.

As fun as The Robber Bridegroom is, it includes some dark moments -- or at least enough suggestion of unsavory acts to make this an iffy call for young children. Lockhart's musical homage to "love stolen from the cookie jar" might not exactly draw N.O.W. protesters to Common Road, but one cringes at the prospect of explaining why he prefers to knock Rosamund unconscious -- twice -- before he beds her down. And this is after he's taken her virginity. Likewise, Big Harp and Little Harp lose a bit of comic cred when one considers what they plan to do with Rosa-mund, should they capture her, and why it involves rope and a sack -- just as it did with a previous conquest.

Rough edges notwithstanding, this production of The Robber Bridegroom is as smooth as musical theater gets in Vermont. And parking's a lot easier in a meadow than it is in Manhattan.

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