It’s as tough to be a successful comedian as it is a successful genius. When the two crossover simultaneously, magic happens. No one’s berating jokes ‘til they’re dead in the water; instead, philosophical renderings become the modus operandi to cull laughter that’s as thoughtful and mind-feeding as it is gut-wrenching. Not many can tackle such a tough combination, but Steve Martin seems to do so quite beautifully.
While most folks recognize the “Saturday Night Live” alum and Hollywood moviestar for his onscreen physical comedy, his music (he is a prolific banjo player) and writings (novellas, plays and magazine essays) show him as a multi-faceted thinker that goes beyond mere entertainment.
And, really, isn’t smart comedy the best kind?
His first play, “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” was written and performed in the early ‘90s. It follows two geniuses, Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso, before they discovered and created their best works (the theory of relativity and the painting of “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”). They meet up at a Parisian bar, Lapin Agile (Nimble Rabbit), and endure long conversations about their work, how to value talent and understand sacrifice, all the while illuminating their personalities—faults and all—with a multitude of characters venturing in and out of the watering hole.
It’s the third time the show has been staged in Wilmington, according to Big Dawg Productions’ artistic director, Steve Vernon. Vernon added the show to the current season because of its fun, oddly eccentric connection to the next show of the season, “Agnes of God.”
“‘Picasso…’ explores the tension between art and science, and to what degree each have affected the 20th century,” Vernon tells. “‘Agnes of God’ looks at the tension between science and faith.”
Vernon reached out to local director Nick Smith, who hasn’t overseen a production since 2014’s “Romantic Comedy” (Smith has married and started a family in the meantime). As it turns out, Smith was on the verge of hosting “Picasso…” at the Browncoat Pub and Theatre, which he oversaw before it shuttered over a year ago.
“I was really tickled when I found out Steve was bringing it to Big Dawg and I might have another crack at it,” Smith tells. “I like the playful absurdity it has. The show asks you to accept a lot of random things and doesn’t apologize for them, which for me is a lot of fun.”
“[Nick’s] got a great sense of the absurd, which is needed when approaching a play like Mr. Martin has written,” Vernon adds.
The farce of the show is what most will walk away connecting with, according to Vernon and Smith. Audiences do not have to be knowledgeable about either art or science to understand the show’s recurring themes.
“There’s a sense of it being grounded,” Vernon tells, “so it’s not like ‘Waiting for Godot.’ The humor is smart, but there’s enough comedy in there that even an idiot like me can find plenty to laugh at!”
Smith has focused on its surrealism, especially moments where the fourth wall is broken between the leads and audience. The actors don’t only talk to the audience, they walk around and interact with them. Playing Picasso will be J. Robert Raines, and Kenny Rosander will take on Einstein.
“There’s a perfect, precarious mix between being utterly charming and arrogant that [Kenny’s] pulling off so well,” Smith tells. “Plus, with his mustache and accent, he makes Einstein adorable. Raines is relatively new to town. Yet, he’s already leaving marks of impression upon the theatre scene. “He blew me away at his audition,” Smith praises. “He gives a real ‘force of nature’ quality to Picasso, and the minute he first walks in, he owns the room.”
The actor has taken the role seriously through research. He has studied the world Picasso inhabited and also the paradigm through which he viewed it—from his socio-economic status, to education level, contemporaries, rivalries, and more.
“Context affects the character at the moment of time in the play,” Raines tells, “and how those factors fit into the framework of the show’s motifs. Picasso’s motives were relatively well-known, so trying to find the context for the show became an interesting puzzle to solve. Honestly, his life and world-vision is so large, I’m just trying to do it justice!”
Raines has tapped into all the nuances Martin’s penned to create a full person. Anyone who has ever studied the painter knows of his narcissism, including sexist and misogynistic attitudes. In fact women he dated or bedded often committed suicide while being his muse—not to mention family members. His own granddaughter, Marina Picasso,wrote in her 2001 memoir, “Picasso: My Grandfather”:
“He needed blood to sign each of his paintings: my father’s blood, my brother’s, my mother’s, my grandmother’s, and mine. He needed the blood of those who loved him.”
However, Raines merely playing the artist as an ego maniac only scratches the surface; what lies underneath is often fear and uncertainty, alongside hope to feed creative expression. “You get to his ambition and vision, with the internal emotions holding the latticework together,” Raines says.
“Getting to shift to these different beats is almost like an exhilarating emotional whiplash—like riding a rollercoaster where the lap bar is jiggling, threatening to open and throw you out, but it only makes the risk more delicious. It’s an absolute blast.”
The players who turned art and science on its heels in the 20th century are a smaller part of the larger whole of Martin’s play. The show touches on the magnitude of how the two subjects are interdisciplinary to humankind’s growth thereafter the show’s setting in 1904.
“It’s incredibly relevant right now,” Vernon tells. “We’ve seen such a backlash against both science and art in our country—between many of the anti-science decisions of our current “government’ and people going after creatives because of their views (like the James Gunn situation). It’s just a perilous time for those fields. But they’re the most important things we have. Science helps us understand our world; art helps us understand ourselves. They’re the only way out of this mess. I think it’s good to take some time to celebrate two of the absolute pillars of each in Picasso and Einstein.”