by Gail M. Burns, May 2007
I cannot tell you how many times I have repeated the title of this show to people. “What is it called?” they would ask me. And no matter how carefully I enunciated the answer, the next question out of many people’s mouths was “Who’s Abe Picasso?”
But this play is called A Picasso for two very good reasons. First, it centers on the desperate need of a young female Nazi official to procure an authenticated work by Picasso for an “exhibit” of “degenerate art.” And secondly author Jeffrey Hatcher, director Tyler Marchant, and actor Thom Christopher have combined their talents to create a very vibrant reincarnation of the Pablo Picasso (1881-1973).
But no matter how fascinating the character or the actor, this is not THE Picasso, it is only A Picasso. I am not enough of a Picasso scholar to tell you how authentic Hatcher’s portrait is, but I suspect he has done his homework. Certainly his version jibes with the few facts rattling around in my head. Picasso did indeed remain in Paris during the Nazi occupation, where he continued to cast in bronze (with smuggled metal) after the German’s banned that activity.
Hatcher’s play is set in Paris on a late October day in 1941. Specifically, it is October 24, the day before Picasso’s 60th birthday, a fact that takes on somber ramifications as the action progresses. Picasso (Thom Christopher) has been taken to an underground room by German officers, where he is interrogated by Miss Fischer (Gretchen Egolf) about the authenticity of three sketches. First he claims they are genuine, then he claims they are fakes. She cannot release him or leave the room herself until she has a Picasso in hand. How the matter is resolved and who, ultimately, triumphs, is a cunning surprise.
While I have some questions about Hatcher’s script, which I think is not quite as strong as it could be, particularly in its portrait of Miss Fischer – we never really learn why she or her family members are in danger – I have no doubt at all that Barrington Stage has mounted a perfect production. Christopher and Egolf are perfectly cast. Brian Prather’s set design is genius, and the costumes by Guy Lee Bailey and lighting by Jeff Davis are top notch.
Marchant has staged the show “in the round” but here that is a misnomer because it is really “in the rectangular” or more properly “in the box.” Prather has constructed the small, low-ceiled room in which Picasso is interrogated. It has a ceiling, built below the already fairly low ceiling in the basement of the Berkshire Athenaeum, a door, and four corners, but most of the walls are missing – not all, some come waist high, and some retain their plumbing and heating pipes. In the dark gaps peer chunks of audience. Picasso and Miss Fischer are literally and figuratively surrounded, and we are the ones surrounding them.
“A Picasso” runs 90 minutes with no intermission, and so there is no escape for actors or audience. The action moves forward relentlessly and Marchant moves his actors around their small pen like caged animals.
Egolf is a cool beauty with luminous eyes and a hard set mouth. She is very much in control for most of the first half of the play. Christopher is a commanding presence. His Picasso is very sure of who he is and what he and his work are worth.
Hatcher does a good job of providing you with the historical facts you need to understand and enjoy this play, but I would suggest, if you are not familiar with Picasso and his work, that you take some time to look at some of his paintings, sketches and sculptures, particularly Guernica which is referenced frequently here. Prather and Bailey echo Picasso’s grim palate of blacks, whites, grays and tans from that mural in their set and costume designs. Looking closely at the painting, one can see that Prather has virtually inserted his Picasso and Miss Fischer into Guernica's stark, confining walls.
This is a play about war and art and conscience, a play about the value of art to the artist and to the world at large. Here, Hatcher’s less than perfect script is molded into a work of fine art through the artistry of the performers and the production team. Unlike a painting, sketch or sculpture, theatrical art is fleeting no matter how important. Its legacy exists only in the memories and written commentaries of those lucky enough to experience it. Be one of those lucky few and go see A Picasso.
The Barrington Stage Company production of A Picasso runs through June 10 at Berkshire Athenaeum located at 1 Wendell Avenue in Pittsfield. Performances Wednesday and Thursday at 7 pm, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. The play runs an hour and a half with no intermission and is suitable for ages 14 and up. For tickets, call the box office at (413) 236-8888 (Pittsfield); (413) 528-8888 (South County) or visit www.barringtonstageco.org.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007