Big Dawg Productions has the antidote for rainy-weather blues: Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” directed by Nick Smith, is currently showing at Cape Fear Playhouse. It is guaranteed to create side-splitting laughter.
The set-up is awesome: Einstein (Kenneth Rosander) and Picasso (J. Robert Raines) walk into a bar. The bar in question, the Lapin Agile, is in Paris in 1904, and the proprietor, Freddy (Grant Hedrick), happens to be in the right place at the right time.
Hedrick gives a very good rendition of a bartender who has perfected the balance between maintaining order and letting events take their course. He only gets involved when forced to, or when he wants to, but is truly enjoying the drama playing out in front of him. He’s got a front-row seat, and after all this is a fringe benefit to bar ownership, n’est-ce pas?
For his wife, Germaine (Amanda Young), there are additional fringe benefits to the bar—and they walk around in trousers. For all the strutting and posturing of assorted men in the room, young’s Germaine is clearly a very smart woman, trapped in a world without a lot of options. She has chosen to entertain herself the only way she can. It might not be honorable, but it is amusing. Enter Suzanne (Rebekah Carmichael). What an entrance! Gaston (Lee Lowrimore), the resident barfly, is certainly taken with her. But then she walks in and starts bearing skin (by 1904 standards), so it’s pretty hard not to stare. Carmichael has a tremendously expressive face that telegraphs a multitude of emotions which pass through her character’s mind. When combined with the mirror of Lowrimore reacting to her, I could almost remove the soundtrack and just watch their faces to follow the journey—they are that entertaining.
Just when things might be veering into the serious, Sagot (Josh Bailey), a flamboyant and enterprising art dealer, arrives with a newly acquired painting. It is really fun to get to see Bailey in a role that lets him be so expansive and big. Because, here, there is no such thing as “too big” or “too much.” From the flashy coat and hat costumer Stephanie Scheu Aman dressed him in, to the gold coins that metaphorically fall from his fingertips, everything he touches or interacts with becomes a treasure—even people. Mind you, it all is just preparatory to the arrival of the biggest personality of the hour, the man whose ego and actions cannot be contained: Picasso. Raines swaggers about with the assurance of a man in possession of all he sees, leading to the question: “Does the attitude lead to success or does the success lead to the attitude?” Yes, he is a complete and total cad who treats women, especially, and the rest of humanity, incidentally, pretty terribly. But, damn, he does have charisma. And that awful sneer can be a surprising challenge.
It is quite the contrast to the equally self-assured but much more introverted Einstein that Rosander gives us. The contrast is actually what makes it work so well: Both men are completely certain of their own purpose. Neither really cares if others believe or understand them. What they need, what they breathe, what they see, what they hear—it defies ordinary conversation. They both strive for something more, something that transforms and will on some level give them peace from the visions. So what does happen when Picasso and Einstein meet? Well, a duel actually.
In one of the funniest moments I have witnessed on stage, with Sagot refereeing, Einstein and Picasso actually have a duel of science versus art. The winner? Well, watch the show to decide. Martin is using the structure and tropes of farce to explore some deep questions of human existence. It’s a brilliant ploy that makes the questions approachable, even for Gaston, who is primarily interested in women and booze. In each other, Einstein and Picasso recognize themselves, their fears and desires. To watch them discover and share it across the stage is beautiful. They manage to do so while delivering Martin’s witty dialogue and not burst into hysterical laughter; it seems almost super human.
Even in this intellectual and artistic idyll reality, commercialism intrudes in the form of Schmendiman (Zeb Mims). Decked out in a garish checkered suit—which can probably be seen from outer space—Schmendiman is a fast-talking carnival barker, who has inadvertently veered into inventing and manufacturing questionable building materials. It’s like P. T. Barnum and Jimmy Hoffa decided to become building contractors: Buyer beware. His interruption is only trumped by the arrival of a soft-voiced, gold-lame-wearing time traveler, played by Joshua Peterson.
Farce is a lot harder to play than many realize. My date and I saw a very disappointing production of this play previously, and the problem then was the cast didn’t understand it was a farce. Make no mistake: This cast knows they’re exploring some of the weightiest questions in human existence and they are doing so through humor. That humor is the key to make the big questions approachable. The audience will laugh their way through the evening and walk out with perma-grins from the joy and excitement.
Scott Davis has built a lovely playground for such ideas to flourish, including a variety of paintings to challenge the audience’s different conceptions of art. (Personally, I like the sheep.) Costumer Stephanie Scheu Aman really makes each character distinctive but adds an extra visual sizzle that is so important to a show revolving around art.
For a truly great night of theatre, “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” is the answer. It is a beautifully produced, stimulating, and most of all, funny interpretation of a fabulous script. Smith and the cast promise a great night of entertainment and deliver on all fronts.