Picasso at the Lapin Aglie
January 13 to 28, 2012
So Picasso and Einstein walk into a bar. No really, it’s not a joke. In Picasso at the Lapin Agile these characters actually do walk into the same bar. On the other hand it is a joke – the play I mean. Not a joke really, more of a lengthy Saturday Night Live skit that while smart and funny in places goes on just a bit too long and runs off the rails in places.
I use the SNL reference here intentionally because Picasso at the Lapin Agile is written by one of the show’s most well-known and well-rounded past cast mates – Steve Martin. Martin, who is known for his banjo playing, novel-writing, screenwriting and art collecting in addition to his comedy, penned this, his first full length play in 1993. It had a successful run in both Los Angeles and New York and now is brought to us by Morpheus Theatre here in Calgary.
The one-act play features Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso who meet at a bar called the Lapin Agile (Nimble Rabbit). The date is 1904and both men believe they are close to unveiling work that will change the century. Einstein is on the verge of publishing his ground-breaking theory of relativity and Picasso is working up to his seminal painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. The two meet and argue about which is the more beautiful, meaningful and significant talent – that of the hand or of the mind, that of the scientist or of the artist. Heady stuff for sure – but in Martin’s hands, the discussion is peppered with humour that ranges from the intellectually witty (Einstein discussing how a baker would and should bake pies in the shape of the letters of the alphabet) to slapstick-ish (Picasso clutching his heart in mock pain and jealousy every time someone mentions Matisse).
The two are joined in the bar by a host of other characters that each get their chance to zing a few lines and deliver Martin’s philosophy on everything from what drives a womanizer to what inventions the 20th century will bring to what type of books get published to the sleazy world of art dealers. Martin’s insightful, sarcastic and ironic views are given full airing on stage and they work best when the zany screwball treatment is toned down and the jokes are allowed to breathe on their own. Best at this is Greg Spielman as Gaston, a French elderly barfly with an eye for the ladies and a bladder that needs tending to every 15 minutes or so. Apart from his trips to the bathroom, Spielman’s character is on stage throughout the play and his understated stabs at the humour were very welcome in a cast where extreme mad-cappery and shouting was often employed to emphasize the funny and overcome some hollow acting. Lonni Olson at Sagot, Picasso’s art dealer, also hits the right balance between larger than life unctuous character and well-timed thoughtful delivery.
Unfortunately the other actors don’t fare as well. Peter Dorrius’ Einstein feels far too naively gee-whiz to be believable as a master scientific mind and as Picasso Brad Simon’s usage of bombast and bravado makes for some great shouting but not great acting moments. The rest of the cast falls somewhere between fine to amateurish with each one having occasional bright moments that quickly get brought down again by bouts of wooden acting and flubbed lines.
To be fair, Martin’s script doesn’t exactly allow for great character development. Picasso at the Lapin Agile is far more concerned with spouting off sarcasm and bombarding us with gags than it is with giving actors great roles to play. But as Saturday Night Live has shown us, sketch comedy is only really funny if the acting is good. And in this case, there is no way to change the channel.
For the guys – Zany with a healthy dash of smarts would have been a great bet – but instead it feels over-acted and under-funny. SKIP IT
For the girls – See above. SKIP IT
For the occasional theatre goer – Way too much going on with no real plot, this is will feel long and rambling. SKIP IT
For the theatre junkie – A better cast might have made this a smartly interesting light-hearted diversion, but unfortunately the cast doesn’t live up to the script. SKIP IT.
I haven’t yet seen Picasso, but I did happen to take in Front Row Centre’s Assassins (the Stephen Sondheim musical) at the Pumphouse on Friday (in the larger Victor Mitchell Theatre next to the Joyce Doolittle where Picasso was playing), and from what I was hearing, people seemed to be enjoying the show (rather too loudly during their intermission, unfortunately for us) and it was recommended to me by people I know and trust in the Assassins cast.
I’ve just discovered your blog, so while I’m here, I wanted to say how much I enjoy your writing style and your commentaries on CBC radio, which I have been listening to for some time. I included a link to your blog on my new Calgary Musicals blog under Previews and Reviews (other than my own), to ensure people are aware of you, and will include a link to your musical theatre reviews there as well.
To kick-start my blog, I’ll be going to every musical that plays in Calgary this year (which probably means my non-musical theatre-going will have to slide a bit, unfortunately), and inviting Calgarians to join me through the Calgary Musicals MeetUp Group I started in parallel, so I’m sure we will cross paths along the way. Perhaps we could go to a show together and do competing reviews?
Keep up the good work
Picasso didn’t have an intermission – what you heard was everyone noisily leaving the theatre. Curious to know what you think of it should you see it.
Fabulous re your blog! And thanks for including me in your links. As for musical theatre, I will be reviewing Moby Dick at the Opera in a few weeks, perhaps I’ll see you there and we can compare notes.
Thanks, Jessica. Actually, I now see that it was (also) opening night for Picasso on Friday, so I imagine it was the after-show mingling/reception. It did go on for a bit.
I have been pondering Calgary Opera’s Moby Dick, but thought I’d give it a pass for the purpose of my venture, because it’s an opera, not a musical, at least as I understand it. But then I would count cross-over shows like Sweeney Todd or Porgy and Bess, or rock operas like Jesus Christ Superstar or Hair as “musicals”, as would most people, I think. I struggled with this last week, when I wondered whether to go to UBUNTU at Theatre Calgary (I did go, even though I already had 2 shows but mostly because a friend contacted me to go and she agreed to make all the arrangements!). And although it wasn’t a conventional “musical” in the western sense, it included storytelling, dance and yes, even a little singing (so probably could at least fall into the category of “a play with music”). I decided that in the interest of diversity, I might need to challenge my definition of what is a musical, and of course, write about it. Curious to know what your readers think.
So, Moby Dick, eh? You’ve inspired me to give it a second consideration.
Oh dear. Applause Meter, you obviously didn’t get it. I was privileged enough to be a part of this amazing show’s audience on Saturday night where the audience was evidently sincere Steve Martin fans — they simply killed themselves laughing.
The humor goes a lot deeper than the surface humour Steve Martin offers through the impeccably well-played Gaston and I don’t think you caught most of it. I’d recommend seeing it again and being a bit more open to the comedy.
Better luck next time, and if you want some more obvious humour, I’d check out Steve Martin’s later work — I’m thinking Father of the Bride or Cheaper by the Dozen?
Thanks for your comments Sarah – and I’m glad you enjoyed the play. I too thought the humour in the this play was quite witty and interesting – my complaint was not with the writing per se (although at times I did think it veered too far into slapstick a la Father of the Bride or Cheaper by the Dozen which I’m not a fan of) it was the acting and direction that I questioned. I’m sorry this was unclear to you in reading my review.